Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Fight over who owns dirt road a 'nightmare' costing Nova Scotia tens of thousands

Over the last four years, the thorny dispute of who owns Little York Road in Five Islands has consumed hours upon hours of bureaucrats’ time, prompted at least two dozen emails from the local MLA, caught the attention of the premier, and cost the province thousands of dollars.

'I need a pay raise or a stiff drink,' wrote one official after meeting with the man who says the road is his

Little York Road is located in Five Islands, N.S. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

It's an unremarkable dirt road that weaves for several kilometres into a barely populated part of backwoods Colchester County near Nova Scotia's Minas Basin.

Unremarkable, except in one way.

Since at least 2012, the thorny dispute of who owns Little York Road in Five Islands has consumed hours upon hours of bureaucrats' time, prompted at least a dozen emails from the local MLA, caught the attention of the premier and cost the province tens of thousands of dollars.

'Nightmare Little York Road'

The deputy minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal has even attended meetings regarding Little York Road at least three times and personally visited the road as many as 11 times.

The effort is all because of one man, Arthur Pugsley, and his long-standing claim that the laneway is his — a battle with the Department of Transportation that is detailed in nearly 1,000 pages of documents obtained by CBC through freedom of information legislation.

The gate at Little York Road was open on May 26. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

While the province has long maintained the road is public property, it's also watched as Pugsley has blocked access, forcing one of his neighbours to abandon his home because he was concerned emergency vehicles wouldn't be able to get through.

The issue has become such a headache that bureaucrats at one point called it "nightmare Little York Road" in emails. One Transportation Department director, following a 45-minute meeting with Pugsley, lamented: "I need a pay raise or a stiff drink" followed by a winking emoji.

Ombudsman investigating

The case has also caught the attention of Nova Scotia's ombudsman, who has launched an investigation, although it's not clear when a report will be complete or if it will be made public.

Little York Road landowner Arthur Pugsley is pictured with Colchester North MLA Karen Casey in a photo published in the Shoreline Journal in November 2013. The Journal reported the photo was taken of a “newly elected Karen Casey as she arrives at the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall for a celebration.” (Harrington Photo/Shoreline Journal)

Throughout it all, Pugsley's strongest advocate appears to be Liberal MLA Karen Casey, whose support for him is at odds with her own government's claims of ownership.

It's not clear why Casey took such an interest in the case. She declined to respond to questions about her involvement with Little York Road or the Pugsley family.

Pugsley says he built road

Arthur Pugsley has also declined, through his wife, to comment.  The documents obtained by CBC show he provided the Transportation Department with surveys that he felt supported his ownership of the road. He argues the road is private because he built it.

The email trail begins in May 2012 when Casey, then an Opposition MLA, wrote a letter to the transportation minister asking for a meeting to discuss the ongoing dispute, adding "there is substantial evidence to support [redacted]'s claim."

Names have been removed from many of the documents obtained by CBC — but between a number of unredacted documents and the context of the redacted documents, it's clear that Casey is referring to Arthur Pugsley.

In response, the department told Casey the matter was before the courts so it would not be appropriate to meet.  At the time, Pugsley was engaged in a separate legal dispute with another landowner on Little York Road that was settled in the spring of 2013.

Ownership of road unclear, said Casey

Casey wrote again on Jan. 29, 2013, asking the minister to give the matter his personal and immediate attention because the dispute "is of grave concern to the property owner."

She went on to say ownership of the road is in dispute, pointing out the department has been unable to support its contention that the road is public.

In November 2013, after the Liberals were elected and Casey was made education minister, the author of a confidential Transportation Department briefing note wrote that Casey "has made inquiries on behalf of [redacted] and has continued interest in the status of a file."   

Later that month, another internal email said: "Minister Casey understands that we can't allow person to block public roads. If [redacted] obstructs access to road we would have to call RCMP."

Premier Stephen McNeil wrote in January 2014 to the mayor of Colchester County, who was also advocating for Pugsley. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Premier weighs in

Even Premier Stephen McNeil got involved, writing in January 2014 to the mayor of Colchester County, who was also advocating for Pugsley.

"I have recently spoken with minister Casey who informs me that she is continuing to work on behalf of the Pugsleys," McNeil wrote.

It goes on to say Casey has been in contact with the transportation minister to review the case.

Despite Casey's assertions to the contrary, government employees referred to Little York Road as a public road 16 times in documents from June 2012 to December 2016.

'This is a public highway'

"There is substantial information and expenditures dating back a hundred years supporting this as a public highway," said an internal 2013 Transportation Department report. 

In November 2013, the department sent Pugsley a letter warning him it "will hold anyone interfering with the required maintenance or safety of the road, included but not limited to blocking the road or removal of signage, liable for claims of any nature that arise against [the department] resulting from such interference."

However, there is no indication in the documents the department took action against Pugsley when he blocked the road with trucks in 2013. Later, a gate was erected across the road, blocking access.  

A sign posted on Little York Road. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Pugsley Logging Road

The Little York Road sign was also removed and replaced with one for Pugsley Logging Road.

The department advised Pugsley in November 2013 it was planning to grade the road. An email said he was "not happy" and threatened to call the RCMP "and do something to stop us" if the province trespassed.

An email the same day to RCMP noted: "This issue at [Little York Road] will become a bit unruly as it moves forward."

A subsequent email informed department management the grading was completed without incident. In response, the recipient wrote: "Congrats! Well deserved."

In the fall of 2014, the Transportation Department agreed to let Pugsley plow the road that winter for free as per his own request, according to the documents.

Private property sign on the Little York Road. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Province sent bill

However, when Pugsley submitted an invoice of $6,350 plus HST for the snow removal, department district director Mark Peachey emailed Casey to say there was no contract for the work and no agreement to pay for it.

"We were very surprised to see an invoice," he said.

Despite that, the invoice was paid. Pugsley was subsequently also paid $3,860 plus HST for spring maintenance of the road. It's unclear whether there was a contract for the spring work.

In an interview, deputy transportation minister Paul LaFleche remembered it differently, saying he asked Pugsley to do the road maintenance.

But the winter plowing work left much to be desired, according to Mark White, whose family lived 2.2 kilometres down the road, past the gate.

'Please help us'

Concerned there was only a "dog's path" cleared by Pugsley, White felt there was no way emergency vehicles could access his home if needed.

White complained to Casey, who wrote one letter to the department on his behalf, passing on his concerns that emergency vehicles might not be able to access his home in the winter because of the lack of snow clearing.

Books of documents on the Little York Road saga from Nova Scotia's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. CBC News obtained the documents through a freedom of information request. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

White subsequently wrote to the department to say he was surprised she didn't raise other concerns, including the blocked road.

An October 2015 email detailed a call from a resident concerned about the road being blocked. Another email from June 2016 reported a call from a resident who said Pugsley had blocked the road.

"Please help us," the email pleaded.

Neighbour abandons home

In July 2016, department emails discussed asking Pugsley to share keys to the gate he placed across the road with homeowners and the local fire department.

This home used to belong to Mark White, but he abandoned it over the Little York Road dispute. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Due to access issues, White's family has abandoned the house it bought on Little York Road in 2008. The 1.6 hectares of land and home, assessed at $95,500, became the property of the Royal Bank of Canada.

According to Property Valuation Services Corp., the bank sold it to Arthur Pugsley on May 17, 2017 for $15,000.

'A lot of shenanigans'

LaFleche said he had no information about the property sale and wouldn't comment on it.

He said ongoing disputes like the one surrounding Little York Road are not unusual.

"We have a lot of shenanigans around roads," he said, adding that similar issues arise in other departments.

"They're complex and it takes a long time to get to the bottom of them."

He said many MLAs, such as Casey, get involved in their constituents' disputes and her position as a cabinet minister did not influence the department's actions.

$31K spent on Little York Road

"She would have the same treatment as any other MLA in our department."

Between December 2013 and June 2016, the provincial government spent more than $31,000 on the issue, including $15,295 in 2014 on a land survey that reinforced the opinion that Little York Road is public.

The tally does not include a third party report that was commissioned last year or plans to survey the road again this spring.

The department said that latest report also confirms that Little York Road is a public road.