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BC Government's Sell-Off of Public Lands to Powerful Private Interests

Corruption to Profit Privileged Buyers

Below is Part Two of the series on BC Governments Sell-Off of Public Lands to Powerful Public Interests. Part One appeared in Workers' Forum September 15.

The private buyers of BC public property in many cases soon made outsized profits. The following are examples of this profiteering from the legalized corruption of the BC government to pay the rich.

Burke Mountain

In a 2018 report, the BC Auditor General Carol Bellringer noted that the Liberal government sold off 150 hectares of public properties in Coquitlam's Burke Mountain area for $85 million to a single buyer. This was $43 million less than the known appraised market value.

In reviewing Bellinger's report, Vaughn Palmer writes in the Vancouver Sun, "The Liberals must have known they were unloading the 14 parcels for $43 million less than they were worth. When they signed off on the sale in February 2014, they had in hand the appraiser's report putting the value at $128 million. 'The appraisal was timely in relation to the sale of the land,' says Bellringer. 'The quality of the appraisal work was appropriate, and the appraised values for the parcels of land were reasonable.'"

Palmer continues, "Knowing the shortfall, why didn't the Liberals cancel the sale and do a proper one? I'm guessing it was because the transaction, like other land sales at the time, was part of a rush-job effort by the government of then-premier Christy Clark to try to balance the budget.

"The prime beneficiary of the expensive-for-taxpayers transaction involving the Burke Mountain lands, acquiring all 14 properties for two-thirds of the appraised value, was Vancouver-based Wesbild Holdings. In blowing the whistle on the sale to the legislature in the spring of 2015, the then NDP Opposition noted that the company's billionaire founder and chair, Hassan Khosrowshali, was a major donor to the BC Liberals."

George Pearson Centre and Dogwood Lodge

These two public health care facilities on Cambie Street in Vancouver comprised 25 acres. A SkyTrain line, which opened in 2009, runs north-south under Cambie. Onni developers bought both parcels from the government in 2015-16 with plans to build thousands of housing units and commercial spaces.

Onni bought Dogwood Lodge in 2015 for $85 million and immediately subdivided the land into two lots and began seeking city construction permits. By 2019, the same property, now cleared of buildings, was appraised at $380 million.

Onni bought Pearson Centre in 2016 for $217 million and subdivided it into four lots. Officially appraised after its subdivision, the market value of the four lots increased to $462 million.

Without building anything, Onni turned the $302 million it paid to the BC government for the public lands of the two health care centres into a total assessed value of $842 million. This meant a possible profit of $540 million merely for being privileged recipients of a state-run pay-the-rich scheme. By building on the lots, the return for the Onni oligarchs in control will be even greater.

According to the Elections BC website, the Onni oligarchs gave the BC Liberal Party $575,000 and the BC NDP $115,000 between 2005 and 2018.

Cottonwood Lands

The NDP/Green Party coalition government sold the Cottonwood Lands in Maple Ridge, which comprised 11 public properties on 21 hectares (52 acres) for $20 million in September 2017. Developers Polygon and Morningstar together bought the 11 parcels and subdivided them into 71 lots. The 2019 assessed value of just eight lots of the 71 exceeded the original $20 million the government received for all 11 parcels. Polygon also bought Steveston Secondary School in Richmond and Coronation Park Elementary School in Coquitlam during the sell-off.

The Elections BC website says the Polygon oligarchs gave the BC Liberal Party $962,000 and the BC NDP $87,000 between 2005 and 2018.

Moody Centre SkyTrain Station

Developer Ryan Beedie partnered with others to buy four public properties near the new Moody Centre SkyTrain Station in 2017 and 2018 for a total of $29 million. The BC Liberal government initiated the sale, which was completed after the BC NDP/Green Party coalition government took power in 2017. Soon after Beedie took possession of the four properties the appraised market value ballooned to $116 million. Elections BC says Beedie donated $668,000 to the BC Liberal Party between 2005 and 2018.

The Aquilini Investment cartel, well-known for its ownership of the Vancouver Canucks, during the same 2005-18 period gave $1.5 million to the BC Liberal Party and $270,000 to the BC NDP. The Aquilini group partnered with others in 2014 to purchase 40 acres of public property in Burnaby for $58 million. The property is known as the Willingdon Lands. Even though designated as "surplus," the government, after selling the property which houses several mental health and drug treatment centres, leased it back from the Aquilini group. The rental fee has not been disclosed. By 2018 the appraised market value of the property without any additional development has risen from $58 million to $123 million. The Aquilini cartel has submitted a "master plan" for development of the Willingdon Lands, which is now before Burnaby City Council.

Lisa Moore, a principal with the BC auditor general's office told the Vancouver Sun that her office was aware of all the donations to the Liberals and the NDP and the involvement of the donors in purchasing public property. She said the donations did not violate the election rules in force at the time.

The BC government changed the rules governing donations to BC political parties in November 2017, banning most donations from companies and unions. The BC public treasury is now the largest source of funds for the three cartel parties in the BC Legislature. The government pays the cartel parties an annual allowance according to the number of votes received in the election. In the two and a half years prior to the 2020 BC election, the government paid out approximately $16.5-million to the three cartel parties that have members in the legislature.

To be continued — Part Three: "BC Sold 50 Schools and Educational Land Lots in Six Years and Now Faces a Shortage of K-12 Space"

(With files from a Postmedia investigation appearing in the Vancouver Sun, "Sold on your behalf: 164 B.C. schools and hospitals, agricultural and industrial lots worth $1 billion.")

This article was published in

September 17, 2021 - No. 84

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