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

Comox Valley golfers prepare for another 55+ Games

Competition, camaraderie name of the game

Comox Valley firefighters assist with wildfire effort

Four Courtenay firefighters are in Fort St. James helping with the fight… Continue reading

Woman rescued from Stotan Falls calling for safety measures

3L Developments did not comment on immediate plans to add safety precautions

B.C. declares state of emergency as more than 560 wildfires rage

This is only the fourth state of emergency ever issued during a fire season

More than 22,000 blood donors needed

Canadian Blood Services is urging Canadians to help meet patients’ needs this… Continue reading

B.C. wildfires 2018: Hazy skies impacting crews in spotting new fires

18,000 people are on an evacuation alert, with 3,000 homes under an evacuation order

Minister optimistic after 2 days of Columbia River Treaty negotiations

Canadian and U.S. officials met in Nelson Wednesday and Thursday to discuss future of the treaty

Man dies in B.C. police cell while awaiting court hearing

An independent investigation is underway after a man died while in Penticton police custody Aug. 16

RCMP appeal for tips, dashcam footage in German tourist shooting west of Calgary

The Durango crashed into the ditch after the shooting near the Goodstoney Rodeo Centre

2 nurses attacked at B.C. psych hospital, union calls for in-unit security

PHSA says that in-unit guards would do more harm than good

Former B.C. optician won’t be jailed for sexually assaulting minor

Kenneth Pilkington sentenced to 24 months’ probation for offence three decades ago

Red Cross now accepting donations for those impacted by B.C. wildfires

The Canadian Red Cross is asking for help now and in the weeks and months ahead.

B.C. program to educate parents reduces ‘shaken baby syndrome’ by 35%

Period of PURPLE Crying was launched nearly a decade ago

UPDATED: Vancouver Island community under evacuation alert due to wildfire

BC Wildfire Service says steep terrain near Zeballos poses challenge as “out of control” wildfire approaches homes

Most Read