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

Red Cross Workers to visit Bella Coola January 23 – 25

Red Cross workers will be at the Moose Hall Jan 23-25 to meet one-on-one with individuals

Bella Coola to benefit from massive investment in coastal internet

A combined investment of $45.4 million will bring new and updated high-speed internet on the coast

Nearly $500,000 available for internships with First Nations government

Funds announced through partnership with Northern Development and Government of Canada

O’Reilly trial scheduled to start January 15 for Anahim Lake murders

O’Reilly is charged with first-degree murder

School District 49 to re-open Nusatsum Elementary in September 2018

SD49 says increasing enrollment is driving its decision to re-open the school

B.C. cougar kitten rescued after mother struck by vehicle

Conservation Officers find home for young kitten found dehydrated and frostbitten near Williams Lake

Liberals quietly tap experts to write new paternity leave rules

Ideas include creating an entirely new leave benefit similar to one that exists in Quebec

Insurers say Canadian weather getting hotter, wetter and weirder

Average number of days with heavy rain or snow across Canada has been outside norm since spring 2013

Final phase of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials to kick off in B.C.

Doctors hope to get psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy legalized in Canada and the U.S. by 2021

VIDEO: Thousands join women’s march events across B.C.

Today marks one year since the first Women’s March on Washington

Two Canadians, two Americans abducted in Nigeria are freed

Kidnapping for ransom is common in Nigeria, especially on the Kaduna to Abuja highway

Are you ready for some wrestling? WWE’s ‘Raw’ marks 25 years

WWE flagship show is set to mark its 25th anniversary on Monday

B.C. woman who forged husband’s will gets house arrest

Princeton Judge says Odelle Simmons did not benefit from her crime

Women’s movement has come a long way since march on Washington: Activists

Vancouver one of several cities hosting event on anniversary of historic Women’s March on Washington

Most Read