Tearing Jõekääru to pieces (45)
Archived Articles 20 Aug 2009 Erik TannerEWR
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On an uncharacteristically bitter cold day in early May members of the Estonian Summer Homes Association (ESHA) gathered for its annual general meeting in the unheated mess hall of the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp at Jõekääru, in Udora, Ont.. The main business of the meeting was to discuss the future of ESHA and the 144 acres of parkland and forests it owns equally with the children’s camp. At one point, long-time ESHA member Paavo Loosberg cried out for the meeting to be conducted in English, which it was, in part. Mr. Loosberg explained later that the issues under discussion were too important and complicated to be spoken in a language many members do not understand.

ESHA and the children’s camp owner, Jõekääru Suvekodu Selts (JSS), had in late 2008 commissioned an Estonian lawyer to study the situation at Jõekääru and give a written opinion as to how JSS and ESHA should move forward. The lawyer’s “Memorandum” was made available to all that were present at the meeting.

Speaking for the board was Jaan Lepp, who is one of three property trustees for ESHA’s landholdings. The trustees are registered on title as owners of Jõekääru parklands on behalf of the association. Mr. Lepp explained that Jõekääru had now served its purpose as an Estonian cottage community, with more and people moving in to live year round, and as such, members need to consider how the organization should move forward. As well, he noted that ESHA is not a legal organization. He said ESHA needs to formalize itself into a legal entity. The board is proposing giving away ESHA’s interest in the community’s precious parklands to another group of Estonians, that for the most part, would be from outside the Jõekääru community. The lawyer’s memorandum suggests that ESHA’s interest in the parklands be handed over to an “auxiliary organization,” that, though not clearly stated, would in all likelihood over time lead to the children’s camp being the sole owner or the main beneficiary. The memorandum says the auxiliary organization’s “goal may well be dissolution – once it has divested itself of … its interest in the Parklands.” Currently, of the 168 individual lots within Jõekääru, about 40 properties or 24 per cent are now occupied by non-Estonians. The fear amongst some Estonian property owners is that non-Estonian property owners will one day be in the majority and then will want to sell the parklands for personal financial gain.

Oddly enough, the memorandum refers to the community’s parklands as a “burden” to the association. The memorandum states: “In a very real sense the Parklands have become a burden to” ESHA. Describing the parklands as a burden is laughable to many members, because nearly every property owner, Estonian or not, cherishes them. Indeed few people would ever have bought property at Jõekääru if the parklands were not part and parcel of owning a lot in Jõekääru. The chance to be part of a collective that owns and manages the parklands through ESHA, no doubt, clinched the deal for many buyers. There was no expiry date to this arrangement when it was made in 1961. Some members of the board and the trustees argue that the parklands were never meant for ESHA members, rather that the parklands were meant for “Estonian youth.”

Non-Estonian Jõekääru property owners consider it ludicrous to term the parklands a “burden” saying, for the most part, they only moved into the neighbourhood because of the parklands and are very happy to pay the $100 annual fee. Some Estonian property owners warn that if ESHA loses control of the parklands they are moving out of the community.

The memorandum states that ESHA “must also take care not to overlook its first objective, which is to ‘protect the interests of Jõekääru property holders.’ As far as possible all property owners, not just members of the Association, must be on-side with whatever emerges to take the place of” ESHA.

It remains unclear and wholly unexplained how it is in the “interest” of Jõekääru property owners to give away ESHA’s parklands. The children’s camp is operational only five or six weeks a year and as the memorandum states its problems are largely financial. Whereas ESHA makes use of the parklands year round and has no financial worries. ESHA has kept its books in the black since its inception and it does so despite not inviting non-Estonians to join. Indeed, non-Estonian property owners have shown a tremendous amount of goodwill, many pay the $100 annual fee and hardly gripe at their second-class non-voting status. This arrangement is shameful in the minds of several ESHA members.

ESHA is financially more solid than the children’s camp and would be even more so if it were to truly embrace as equals all those that live in the community. ESHA’s stake in the parklands acts as a natural impediment to any sale. The camp cannot sell parklands without the consent of ESHA and vice versa. Jõekääru residents say over and over again, “I like things the way they are.” Property owners are not interested in seeing parklands turned into housing projects, as might be the case if ESHA relinquishes its interest in the parklands. Jõekääru property owners have a long-term view while those that run the camp have a shorter time horizon. JSS presidents come and go and the need to fund capital improvements always looms large in their minds. Rumours of parkland land development scenarios abound, some rumours have real substance. Already, the ESHA board is mulling, with the consent of the general membership, the sale of land on Männiku Road. For what purpose? Ostensibly, in my view, to pay lawyers to help create the “auxiliary organization” and the subsequent land transfer taxes, not to mention capital gains taxes if the parklands are transferred out ESHA hands. It is questionable as to how this best serves ESHA members and non-Estonian Jõekääru property owners.

Not dealt with at all is the potential negative impact on property values that would likely ensue if Jõekääru property owners lost control of the parklands.

Readers should note that I am an ESHA director. I do not write here on the board’s behalf. I speak as a citizen of Jõekääru. I spoke at the May AGM explaining that the ESHA board was pursuing only one option, contrary to its membership mandate to pursue many options. ESHA as it stands now could be formalized perhaps into a legal non-profit association or a land co-operative of some kind, or some sort of society, that would continue to own the parklands, and in all cases embrace both Estonian and non-Estonians property owners, while at the same time promoting Estonian cultural interests and offering support to the children’s camp. There are many options available. The board needs to look at them if it truly is interested in protecting the interests of Jõekääru property holders.
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