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

‘Spread love’: UVic Pride replaces white supremacy posters in Victoria

Around 50 people walked through downtown on Nov. 12 to share posters of love

Sooke residents remember

Hundreds turn out for Remembrance Day ceremony

Who was Chris Bloomfield, the Mill Bay man shot by police?

A troubled man with a voracious appetite for illicit drugs and a non-conventional lifestyle

University of Victoria to get a Starbucks in fall 2019

Finerty Express at the UVic Bookstore to change licence

Grumpy Taxpayer$ offer Saanich News reporter inaugural media award

Black Press journalist wrote on permissive tax exemptions

VIDEO: Amazon to split second HQ between New York, Virginia

Official decision expected later Tuesday to end competition between North American cities to win bid and its promise of 50,000 jobs

Vancouver Island remembers

Important stories shared as Islanders salute those who made the greatest sacrifice

Around the BCHL: Surrey Eagles sliding and Cassidy Bowes flows

Around the BCHL is a look at what’s happening in the league and around the junior A world.

Pit bull cross, chihuahua owners must split costs for dogfight damage, judge rules

Eac side responsible for $577.43 towards injuries in Comox Valley incident

Most fatal overdose victims did not have recent police contact: Stats Canada

11 per cent of those who fatally overdosed in B.C. had four or more contacts with the police

Tragic conclusion to search for overdue hiker west of Campbell River

An overdue hiker was found deceased on the shore of Lower Campbell… Continue reading

Calgarians head to the polls to declare ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on Winter Games

The question “are you for or are you against hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?” was to be posed to them Tuesday in a plebiscite to help determine whether the city should move ahead with a bid.

Heir’s big birthday: 70 candles lined up for Prince Charles

Prince Charles turns 70 Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, still serving in the heir to the throne role he has filled since he was a young child.

Trudeau lays down challenge to companies in bid to boost trade with Asia

“Building the relationships, building the connections, building the facility and also changing mindsets — getting Canadian companies to see the opportunities we have around the world to partner and invest.”

Most Read