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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Handgun pointing complaint draws strong RCMP presence at Chilliwack residence Wednesday night

One in custody after brief standoff involving Emergency Response Team and canine unit

Iconic Chilliwack store passes clothing racks on to downtown neighbours

Chilliwack Mission Thriftstore given racks and fixtures as downtown store closes for good

Exercise and cancer to be explored via webinar

UFV’s Dr. Iris Lesser to lead Zoom event for cancer patients and supporters

Overnight closures for Vedder dike gates this summer rather than full closure

Working with anti-dumping and angling advocates, City of Chilliwack came up with compromise

Fiscal statement from the feds lacked clear plan for economic recovery: MP Strahl

While Conservatives backed emergency supports, it’s now time for ‘transparent plan to guide recovery’

B.C. identifies 20 new COVID-19 cases, travellers specified in count

Pandemic total 3,028 cases, 51 people from outside Canada

Mayors welcome rideshare expansion to eastern Lower Mainland

As of Thursday, Lyft is now offering service throughout Metro Vancouver

Canadian policing organization calls for decriminalization of simple illicit drug possession

Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police want policing focus of opioid crisis to be replaced with a health one

Filing deadline in RCMP sexual-harassment class-action extended due to COVID-19

Plaintiffs now have until January 2021 to submit claims for up to $222,000

Jamie Bacon pleads guilty to charge in Surrey Six case

The plea brings an end to a complex legal case that has spanned more than a decade

Hefty undeclared driver charges piling up, ICBC warns customers

Average extra penalty $2,971 after an at-fault accident

Survey, hotline launched amid probe into racist blood-alcohol guessing game at B.C. hospital

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has been appointed to lead an investigation by Health Minister Adrian Dix

B.C. appeals judge’s decision to leave three clubhouses in Hells Angels hands

The province has filed two notices of appeal related to the B.C. Supreme Court decision

Conservation officers relocate Spirit bear known to roam northwestern B.C.

Bear roamed valley north of Terrace for many years

Most Read