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General News · 4th June 2014
Noba Anderson
Since my article announcing that the Strathcona Regional District (SRD) has been in renewed negotiations with Island Timberlands (IT) for the purchase of the 72 acre piece of land in Whaletown known as the Whaletown Commons (see http://www.cortesisland.com/tideline/show5s/Regional_Directors_Reports) I have been receiving letters and comments as well as questions. Below, I answer as objectively as I can the questions I have received so far. I and the SRD are collecting people’s letters and comment and in a week I will post a summary of some of the key highlights of the broad ranging perspectives that I am hearing. If you want to send a letter to the SRD board, please address it to them and send it to administrationstrathconard.ca and copy me directorcortesisland.com. Or mail letters to 301-990 Cedar Street, Campbell River, BC, V9W 7Z8.

For those of you who have not had the opportunity to walk this piece of land, I am collecting photos of the Whaletown Commons and will be putting together a slide show for your information. If you have images of this land you would like to share, please let me know.

Also, much of the pertinent information about the purchase and appraisal is now on the SRD website for public view at http://strathconard.ca/content/whaletown-commons-property-acquisition.

Q - Why were these negotiations done behind closed doors? And why have you not been honest and forthcoming about what has been happening?
A – It would have been illegal for me to share anything before I did. Local governments usually conduct land purchase negotiations ‘in-camera’ or in closed session. Regional District staff recommended staying in closed session until May 15th and this was the SRD board’s will. It is common best practice to not negotiate blow by blow in the public eye.

Q - Why not just buy the Whaletown Commons and then rise out of closed session and advise us? Why consult?

A – Given the importance of this decision and the associated dollar value, and because the negotiations have been going on behind closed doors for so long, we wanted to check back in with Cortes before making our final decisions.

Q – Is the property for sale? Could anyone else buy it?

A – The property is not listed with an external realtor for sale as Island Timberlands has their own internal realty division. Island Timberlands has been actively in negotiations with us. Yes, someone else could buy it, and that is part of why land purchase negotiations are done behind closed doors – so that all the appraisal work and negotiations that have been done with tax payers money is not wasted when another party uses that information to undercut our efforts. Given that we think this is unlikely to happen at this time for this property, we thought that public discussion was more important.

Q – Why do you follow just what a few Whaletown Commons Society people want?

A – The Whaletown Commons Society has a membership of some 270 people and has been working to put this piece of land forward as a community priority since the 1990s, formalizing a neighbourhood initiative that had been alive for years prior. The Whaletown Commons is one of three identified future parks interests in the Cortes Official Community Plan, which is the SRD’s best effort to gather community will. The OCP states:
The acquisition of the property within the Whaletown area, known as Whaletown Commons, is encouraged; this property having been identified by the community as a desired area for park as well as providing a future land base for other possible community/public uses;
The other two future park interests are the Carrington lands known as the Children’s Forest Trust (which is a very expensive proposition indeed) and the southern tip of the island which is ‘Crown’ which I would hope to secure somehow in a lease or other arrangement with the Province and Klahoose rather than through purchase.

Q – Would taxes go up if the SRD bought the Whaletown Commons?
A – I doubt it – and certainly not by enough that most people would notice. For the last 11 years, a substantial amount of money has been put aside annually into parks reserve with the intent of purchasing the Whaletown Commons (see next question for details). Any amount that we do not have in the bank or cannot fundraise through donations would be borrowed by the Regional District at AAA rates over a five year term. I fully anticipate that the annual loan payments would be very similar to the amount that has been annually contributed to reserves, therefore keeping taxation in the Parks Department stable. Of course this depends on the final purchase price.

Q – How long has the Strathcona Regional District been putting money aside for this purchase and how much have we saved?

A - The SRD Parks budget has been putting aside between $10,000 and $71,000 every year since 2004 into the Community Parks Reserve Fund for park land purchase with this property specifically in mind. George Sirk began this initiative by contributing $20,032 in 2004 and another $36,162 in 2005. Jenny Heibert contributed $52,993 in 2006, $10,778 in 2007 & $71,304 in 2008. I have put aside between $32,000 & $63,000 every year since. That reserve now sits at $502,944.The second reserve that is available for park purchase is the ‘Parkland Acquisition Reserve Fund’ which has a balance of $87,279. This fund has been formed through contributions from private land owners at time of subdivision and from a $6,500 contribution from the Whaletown Common Society. The total of these two reserves is $590,223. It is advisable to leave some funds in reserve for unseen projects including capital projects in existing parks. The Whaletown Commons Society also intends to contribute at least $60,000.

Q – Is Island Timberlands willing to sell the land for $826,000 or at all?
A – Although I cannot speak directly to Island Timberland’s position or the detailed back and forth of any negotiations, I can say that we are close enough in our process that we anticipate, for the first time, being able to complete the purchase for close to the appraised value of $826,000. Island Timberlands has been an active partner in the negotiations. The cost of hiring professionals to conduct the timber and land appraisal was shared between the SRD and IT and was conducted by an independent third party professional that IT has used in the past for this kind of work. I cannot speak to IT’s own internal evaluation and how it might differ from the third party appraisal.

Q – Why would Island Timberland settle for so much less than their previous offer of $1,053,000 + HST?
A – I can only speculate - but so can you – so I will pass.

Q - Could someone else buy the Whaletown Commons with a completely different private agenda?
A – If the Regional District does not complete this purchase, Island Timberland has the right to sell this land to anyone they like. It is private land. Anything could happen within the confines of the covenant and zoning.

Q - What else could the SRD money be used for if we didn’t buy the Whaletown Commons? Could we buy the Food Co-op, or Red Granite Point, or increase teacher’s salaries?

A – The funds that have been raised in the SRD parks’ service can ONLY be legally used for parks. The SRD taxation and budget system is very restrictive. So, ‘no’ to teachers’ salaries and ‘no’ to the Food Co-op unless we want to make it a park… We could use these funds to buy another piece of land, although for political comfort, I would want a thorough community process to ensure that the other land was indeed a community priority. We have already been through a community process for the Whaletown Commons as it is embedded in the Cortes Official Community Plan as one of three future park interests.

Q – Why are you having private meetings with the Whaletown Commons Society?

A – The last step prior to making this information public was checking with the Whaletown Commons Society to see if they would support the purchase as outlined by the SRD and confirm their financial contribution. To that end, we met with them only once shortly before the information went public. Apart from that, they had no access to restricted information.

Q – Why would we buy a logged off piece of land in the middle of nowhere for a park?

A – Although part of the Whaletown Commons was logged some years back, the majority of the mature trees are still standing, including old cedars and maples and the forest along a salmonoid stream. If you have not walked this land I encourage you to do so. As for location, the property is within a 10-15 minute walk of well over 100 properties (assuming a trail is built down Whaletown Creek along a road right of way) and connects three Whaletown sub-neighborhoods being Whaletown Road, Carrington Bay Road and Jocelyn Road. It is also within a 15 minute walk of the Whaletown public dock, the Gorge public dock and the Gorge Harbour Marina.

Q – Will we be able to build a community hall or playing fields on this land in the future?

A- It is imperative to make clear that the purchase would be for a natural and undeveloped park where we would commit at this time to do little more than maintain the existing trail network. There is no guarantee that future development of community infrastructure or park services would happen. This will be a future conversation and subject to the limits of the covenant that exists on the land, the zoning, funds and of course community will and energy.

Q – What about the Whaletown helipad?

A – Island Timberlands and The Land Conservancy have a letter of agreement to allow an amendment to the covenant on the land to allow for clearing for the purposes of a helipad approach. There is a map associated with the letter of agreement that shows the helicopter approach area to be along Whaletown Road. It is more than reasonable to trust that the approach area could easily be amended with consent of both TLC and the land owner.

Q - Why would we tax ourselves for parks in these economic hard times?

A – This is a matter of opinion and I will leave this for community discussion.

Q – Is this a done deal?
A – No. However the direction from the board at this time is to purchase the Whaletown Commons for the appraised value of $826,000 and that is the track we are on. We are checking back in before making our final moves. What do you think?

I want to hear from you. You can call me, 250-935-0320, write a letter and come out the SRD hosted public information meeting, Tuesday the 17th of June, 7 pm at the Gorge Hall.

Thank-you for your attention.

In gratitude, Noba Anderson