Victoria forum on sale of public lands draws interest

Transparency, inconsistent policy among concerns relating to city land dealings

As the city prepares to entertain the possible sale of a second piece of prominent public land, some are calling for a made-in-Victoria policy to guide such sales in the future.

Irwin Henderson presented his research to a standing-room only community forum last week.

“It’s a matter of fairness, that you want buyers and the taxpayers to be treated fairly over time, as well as in individual cases, and that’s why it’s important to have a policy,” said Henderson, an active community volunteer.

City councillors Ben Isitt and Shellie Gudgeon hosted the community discussion, which attracted nearly 100 people. While some people feel public land should never be sold, others have argued for more transparency, open competition, or other standard criteria.

Both Isitt and Gudgeon recently opposed the majority vote by council to consider an offer from Ralmax Group of Companies to purchase the city-owned marine industrial land at Point Hope.

That decision sparked the community forum, but the issue of public land divestiture has been a sore point since January.

That’s when details of the Northern Junk proposal came to light.

Two years ago, council granted developer Reliance Properties permission to submit a rezoning application for the public land surrounding its privately-owned property on Wharf Street.

The company proposes to restore the two heritage buildings on its own lot, and to build a multi-use development extending into property currently owned by the city.

While council still has the authority to reject the rezoning application, it risks a lawsuit if it withdraws its offer to include municipal property in the development plan.

For many, the irreversible nature of the deal came as a nasty surprise.

The public learned of the situation thanks to a motion by Coun. Lisa Helps to report on the council decision made behind closed doors.

It was Helps who again made a motion in late April to report on council’s motion to entertain an offer by Ralmax.

“That’s important to me that the conversation happens in public,” she said at the time.

Isitt argues that the process is backwards.

“The city should really be the driving force (behind land sales),” he said.

When faced with an offer to buy land, he added, the city’s first question should be ‘is this surplus to the city’s current or future needs?’

By agreeing to consider an offer before this analysis, the city is sending the message that ‘if the price is right, the land is surplus,’ he said.

In his presentation, Henderson shared his research into three other North American municipalities with land-sale policies. There were some commonalities shared by each, he said.

“They (all) had some kind of notification procedure that land is on the market and available, and that’s at the early stages,” he said. “It also announces, at that point, the process that will be followed, and it will give a hint, or more, for the policy reason for doing this.”

Did you know?

• The City of Victoria has no municipal land-sale policy, but must abide by the provincial Community Charter. The charter dictates that before council disposes of any land, it must publish a notification. If the land is available to the public, the city must publish the terms and process by which it can be acquired. If the land isn’t publicly available, the city must publish who will acquire the land, the nature of the sale or disposition, and what the city receives in exchange.

• The city has a policy dictating the allocation of proceeds from land sales: 10 per cent goes to the parks and greenways acquisition reserve fund, and the rest goes to the tax sale land reserve fund.

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