Realtors deal with Port Hope evacuation scare

REM – Real Estate Magazine
25 January, 2011 4:15 PM
by Jim Adair

Realtors deal with Port Hope evacuation scare

By Brian Slemming

Port Hope has a proud history. The small Ontario town of 16,000 sits on the north shore of Lake Ontario, 100 km east of Toronto. The town has an abundance of finely built heritage residences that appeal to the many retired people who have chosen to make the town their home.

As every Realtor knows, selling heritage homes is not without some complications. Additions and improvements have to meet strict heritage guidelines, but the local industry has, through practice, been successful in working through these regulations. So it can never be said that Realtors working in the western end of Northumberland County are unable to rise to a challenge.

They faced a big one when Dr. Helen Caldicott came to town recently. The controversial anti-nuclear advocate advised the residents of Port Hope to evacuate the town and sue the federal government for costs and for damages. Whether Caldicott truly believed that a community of 16,000 would be so alarmed at the thought they were at such a risk of nuclear contamination that they would all up and leave is beyond knowing. What is clear is that the media, national and local, pounced on the story.

Activist warns Port Hope that radioactive waste will leak into water and air ‘for the rest of time’ was the headline in the Toronto Star. The accompanying article spelled out the dire situation described by the activist, who was in Port Hope at the beginning of a book tour. Caldicott claimed that “Port Hope’s air, drinking water, fish, beach and soil poses a health risk.”

The impact on local businesses was immediate and the real estate sector took an early hit. “We felt immediate fall-out,” says Marianne Wilson of Re/Max Lakeshore Realty. “We were working with a client who was considering buying a property in Port Hope in the $500,000 price range. We had an offer on the property and then, following the news, the buyer just walked away, saying they didn’t want to touch it.”

The radiation issue grew out of the activities of Eldorado Nuclear, which set up shop in the town over 50 years ago refining radium and uranium. The company, now operating under the name Cameco, strongly disputes Caldicott’s statement, pointing out that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is overseeing a clean-up of the area. The commission carries out regular testing and maintains that cancer rates in Port Hope are the same as any other community.

Atomic Energy Canada is conducting a 10-year clean-up program that will see over one million cubic metres of waste dug up from a variety of locations around the town and buried in a closed and sealed pit.

David Turck, a Port Hope councillor, is also an agent with Royal LePage Pro Alliance Realty. “It is not the first time we have had dealings with Dr. Caldicott,” he says. “Last year she got national press coverage when she was in the area. The situation (low-level radio active waste) is being responsibly handled. There have been numerous studies done on the town and the Canadian Nuclear Association has supported the town’s clean-up program.”

While Turck has not suffered any missed listings himself, he says, “Office colleagues have been less fortunate. One member of our office has been working with a local developer. Following Caldicott’s visit the developer put the project on hold until this blows over.”

Brad Hockin, broker of record of Ken Hockin Real Estate, says, “We have had one deal fall apart because of the scare. A woman bought a house in Port Hope, but just couldn’t bring herself to close the deal. Strangely, her husband had no problem – he has worked in the nuclear industry – but his wife decided not to move.”

Derek Friedrich of Royal LePage points out that Atomic Energy Canada (AECL) says, “Port Hope is probably the safest town in Canada because of the high number of studies that have been carried out through the years.”

The problem confronting all those engaged in operating a business in Port Hope is uncertainty. Wilson relates a story about a visitor to the town who would not go to Tim Hortons for coffee because she “was afraid their coffee, brewed with local water, wasn’t safe.” Doubt has become an integral part of the town’s recent history. Hockin says, “I’m not a scientist. I just sell homes but there does seem to be conflicting data as to what the dangers are.”

Friedrich has a simple solution. “It would be very good if the matter could be addressed once and for all. Can’t a definite answer be found?” The question may be rhetorical, but the answer is no. A definitive answer may have to wait generations – or according to Caldicott, there may never be a definitive solution.

Sharon Martin

The past-president of the Northumberland Hills Association of Realtors, Sharon Martin of Royal LePage Pro Alliance, says the association quickly issued a statement to local media and members. The statement highlighted the fact that Port Hope is the only community in Canada that requires that all listings include a radiological test and status letter. The letter issued by AECL contains results of tests for Radon Gas Analysis, Interior Gamma Radiation Scan, Exterior Gamma Radiation Survey and Construction Monitoring Program. The tests are specific to the property concerned and carry the date of test and the result. This program was the result of association discussions with AECL.

Martin sold a Port Hope house during the period of the firestorm. “I got the offer in prior to Caldicott coming to town. It was conditional, but the buyer firmed it up,” she says.

Martin, who was born and raised in Port Hope, says, “I have heard from Realtors that things are difficult. It’s sad that this cloud hangs over Port Hope but it means Realtors have to sit down with their clients and explain the facts. Explain that the facts show nothing is wrong, but then someone like Caldicott gets huge media attention and it scares people.”

This is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that Port Hope faces the claim that it is unsafe, but the reality is that 16,000 people make it their home. Children go to school, families go shopping and people go to work. Despite the urging from Dr. Caldicott to evacuate the town, there has been no rush of refugees leaving the city. For the real estate industry, as with other businesses, this will make the job a little harder in the short term, but it too will pass. Until, that is, the next time an activist comes to town.

Statement from the Northumberland Hills Association of Realtors:

The Northumberland Hills Association of Realtors are certainly not experts on health and environmental issues…ours is housing. We rely on and trust those authorities who have thoroughly looked at the issues and confirmed that all standards have been met.

All properties that are bought and sold in the Town of Port Hope require a radiological test and status letter. People are made fully aware of all of the facts and test results prior to purchasing. The Port Hope Area Initiative Office has always been available and willing to answer any questions that the public may have. The facts are readily available to anyone who wishes to review the information.

Obviously bad media attention will have a negative impact on the town in the short term. Our MLS statistics show that although housing sales are down slightly in Port Hope from 156 units listed in 2009 to 138 units listed in 2010, the actual average sale price has increased from $206,970 in 2009 to $225,681 in 2010.

Port Hope is a safe community. I personally was born and raised in Port Hope, and have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this town to people as a safe and beautiful environment to call home.

Sharon Martin

President, 2010

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