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Couple devastated after property expropriated for bypass

'I didn't realize what they could do,' says investment property owner who recently had land expropriated to make way for Bradford Bypass project
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Bessie and Joe Ditta say goodbye to their income property/workshop last week after the government expropriated the property for the building of the Bradford Bypass.

A Bradford couple says they feel “violated” and frustrated after their income property on Yonge Street near 8th Line in Bradford West Gwillimbury was “ripped out of their hands” by the government to make way for construction of the Bradford Bypass, a 16.2km link between highways 404 and 400.

Bessie Ditta and Joe Di Feo purchased the rural home seven years ago as an investment property.

“Unfortunately with the green light to the development of the Bradford Bypass our beautiful rental/investment property was expropriated,” said Bessie in a social media post last week.

Originally, Di Feo had been renting the garage as a workshop. Three years later, the owners approached him and Ditta about purchasing the entire property from them. They decided to “jump on the opportunity,” keeping the workshop for Di Feo and renting out the home to two families.

They undertook extensive repairs and renovations to customize the home the way they wanted.

“We poured our hearts and souls into that property,” said Ditta. “It meant a lot to us.”

When the couple purchased the property, they were told it could be commercially zoned one day, but there was no mention of the highway.

“I always thought if they were ever going to build there, it would be something commercial, but I never really looked into what could potentially be going there,” said Ditta.

She believes the sudden eviction had a lot to do with the upcoming provincial election.

“Doug Ford wants shovels in the ground before the election so that this (bypass) doesn’t get stopped,” said Ditta. 

While they are not against the building of the highway, they wish they were given more notice and fair compensation for the home they worked so hard to obtain and maintain.

“I do believe we do need a highway. I am not disagreeing with that. There is a lot of congestion in Bradford ... However, timing should have been of the essence, putting a lot of people first before just throwing people away, out of their homes,” said Ditta.

In a response to a request for comment from BradfordToday, Lee Alderson, senior issues adviser at the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), said expropriation may become necessary to ensure highway projects proceed as scheduled and are used as a backstop measure.

It was in October 2021 when the MTO first reached out to the Ditta and Di Feo and made an offer on their property.

The MTO states, should an amicable agreement not be reached between the ministry and property owners, the ministry notifies the owners of their intention to expropriate the required property under the Expropriations Act, as per the legislated expropriation process. An expropriation plan is then registered at the Land Registry Office. A notice of expropriation, notice of election and notice of possession is sent by registered mail to the property owner.

“Our preferred approach is always to work with owners and provide an offer of compensation based on an estimate of the market value,” said Alderson.

But Ditta said the offer was “nowhere near” what the property value should be, although she could not disclose what the amount was.

“They really undercut it,” she said.

Since an amicable agreement could not be reached between the couple and the MTO, the couple hired a lawyer, who advised it would likely be a year before any progress on the expropriation would happen.

But then, at the end of January 2022, the pair received a registered letter from the government, letting them know they needed to be out of the house in 90 days.

The MTO states the possession date may be extended if the highway project schedule permits.

The couple asked their lawyers to ask the MTO if they could get an extension on the eviction date due to the burden it would place on their tenants. They were hoping to get the date pushed to at least fall, which would give them time to find another property and take their tenants with them.

But Ditta said their request to delay was denied.

“I had to break the news to my tenants ... and told them April 30 they had to leave and told them it wasn’t my doing, I wasn’t throwing them out, that MTO was,” said Ditta.

The upstairs tenants, a young family, had been living at the home for three years.

“That property was going to be ours forever. I had no intention of ever selling, and we promised (the tenants) that,” said Ditta, noting the family has had to move out of town, unable to find anything comparable in the area.

Ditta says the tenants were paying a “good, affordable rate,” and due to rising costs of housing, they ended up having to move out of town to find comparable rental rates.

“The market is so high right now, how do you buy something equivalent (in value)? You can’t,” said Ditta. “It just broke my heart when I had to tell them (they had to leave).”

The MTO says support for tenants is generally provided in the form of compensation that is dependent on the type, terms and length of the tenancy.

“In cases where there are challenges finding similar accommodation, MTO may help by providing tenants information about properties in the area,” said Alderson.

As of now, the couple and the MTO have yet to settle an agreement of purchase and sale.

Ditta said the government has since sent a second offer, which the couple also rejected.

“We don’t want it. It’s well under what the market rate would be,” she said.

Ditta noted the evaluation of the property from the MTO was not as in-depth as she expected.

“They did a market value assessment, but (during) their market value assessment, nobody went inside (the house),” said Ditta. “They just walked around the property.”

The MTO told BradfordToday that its independent appraiser endeavours to inspect the interior of properties when preparing an appraisal report and in cases where that is not possible, the market value of the property is based primarily on a review of the value of similar properties sold on the open market. Due to restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic, or the preference of homeowners, there have been some cases where the appraisers have been unable to access properties for interior inspection.

The couple's lawyer is now conducting their own evaluation that will cost around $5,000, which the MTO will cover.

“This appraisal is considered by the ministry in determining its offer of compensation,” said Alderson. “Property owners can request that matters of compensation be brought before the Ontario Land Tribunal. Throughout the expropriation process, the ministry continues to negotiate with property owners in an effort to reach an amicable agreement.”

As of last week, the couple no longer owns the property and continues to negotiate an agreement of purchase and sale with the MTO.

Ditta and Di Feo wanted to share their story to make people aware of the process if the government decides to expropriate property.

“When your property gets expropriated, you lose rights to it, they can evict you and continue settlement negotiations ... a hard lesson we learned ...” said Ditta.

Once a settlement has been reached, the couple plans to reinvest in another income property close by.

“It’s just sad. I didn’t realize what they (the government) could do,” said Ditta.

The MTO says so far there have been five properties expropriated for the Bradford Bypass.