Hasty land sales leave lingering odour

Land in Coquitlam, Surrey and Victoria could have fetched more if left on the market longer, but political need came first

Crown land on Burke Mountain was sold to a developer as part of the B.C. government's asset sales to balance the provincial budget.

VICTORIA – The B.C. Liberal government’s sale of Crown properties to help balance its election budget was the dominant story in the legislature last week, as the NDP revealed evidence of a “fire sale” that may have left millions on the table.

They started with Burke Mountain, the biggest single deal involving 14 view properties in Coquitlam. The buyer was a prominent developer whose array of companies happened to donate nearly $1 million to the B.C. Liberal Party since 2000.

The $85 million price tag was similar to the B.C. Assessment Authority value on these forested properties, but an outside appraisal concluded they could have fetched an additional $43 million if they had spent more time on the hot Lower Mainland real estate market.

(This sale made headlines last fall for the province’s $8 million buyout of the local First Nation’s undefined territorial claim, when it was revealed the chief of the tiny Kwikwitlem First Nation pocketed an $800,000 commission.)

The government’s defence of the sale went from wobbly to weak. Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk was caught flat-footed and tried to get by on platitudes rather than retreat and find some answers.

Premier Christy Clark weighed in, arguing that the budget would have balanced without the property sale, and that some sales closed too late to help the election-year budget. Finance Minister Mike de Jong stressed that all these asset sales were detailed in three successive budgets. They downplayed the notion of land sales being rushed.

Then the NDP produced a string of emails sent between senior officials responsible for selling two big properties across the street from the legislature.

“To be part of the sale and development of over eight acres of Victoria’s beautiful inner harbour area is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An opportunity that normally would warrant years of planning and preparation,” wrote one citizens’ services bureaucrat. “Unfortunately we don’t have unlimited time – our goal is to have For Sale signs up by Oct. 31 with sales proceeds in the bank by March 31, 2013.”

Then came a disclosure about a property in Surrey that had been bought as a potential hospital site. Once the existing hospital was expanded, that property was declared surplus. Indeed, de Jong featured this property to promote the government’s plan to stimulate local economies with private sector investment on unused land.

The Surrey deal closed for $20.5 million on March 21, 2014, just days before the end of the fiscal year. NDP leader John Horgan pointed to an outside appraisal of $23.5 million, and an assessment for tax purposes of $27.2 million.

The appraiser also recommended that the “highest and best use” for the Surrey land was to hold it until had been rezoned for commercial, retail or office development.

De Jong cited another big health property in Vancouver that sold for more than its appraised and assessed value. It’s only the actual market that determines worth, he insisted.

But it’s now clear that these and perhaps other sales were done with arbitrary deadlines that had everything to do with the B.C. Liberals’ need to balance the books. When elections are a battle of sound bites, perception matters more than reality.

It’s also worth recalling that the budget deficits prior to the 2013 election were largely a result of the B.C. government’s costly undoing of the harmonized sales tax, rather than the harsh forces of international finance.

Surplus asset sales have a long tradition in B.C., where the government owns more than 90 per cent of all land. But after this round, full disclosure will be demanded.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

Just Posted

Parksville resort fire caused by flammable gas used to extract oil from cannabis

Investigators detail reasons for explosion and blaze that destroyed building

Suspect arrested following gunpoint robbery in Qualicum Beach

Stop and Shop Grocery was robbed June 5; man now in custody

Wildfire burning near Taylor Flats in the Alberni Valley

Fire is located close to Highway 4 near Sproat Lake

Concerned farmers speak up about legislative changes to ALR land use

Bills 15 and 52 the focus of ‘emergency’ meeting to be held in Nanoose Bay

Qualicum Beach cinema advocates want to hear from you

Group inspired by local, international examples of community projects

10 facts about Father’s Day

Did you know that the special day for dads was first celebrated in 1910?

B.C. VIEWS: When farmland protection doesn’t protect farmers

Secondary residences aren’t mansions, families tell Lana Popham

Port Alberni man dies in ATV accident

A Port Alberni man has died following an all-terrain vehicle accident near… Continue reading

B.C. woman fighting to block coroner’s report detailing husband’s death

Fears revealing exactly how Ben Kilmer took his life will have traumatic effect on her two children

Monkey spotted on late-night jaunt in Campbell River

Conservation officers also apparently looking for cougar in the area

Bombers down B.C. Lions 33-23 in season opener

Former Lion Andrew Harris leads Winnipeg with 148 rushing yards

B.C. bus driver loses case to get job back after texting while driving full bus

An arbitator ruled that Tim Wesman’s phone usage was a “a reckless disregard for public safety”

Three Albertans land ‘monster’ sturgeon in B.C.’s Fraser River

For angler who landed the exceptionally large sturgeon it was an ‘incredible dream come true’

You might not know these B.C. records are public

Hired a lawyer to file a civil claim? Those are published online

Most Read