Monday, February 16, 2004

Fish farm probe, forest deal new worries for Liberals
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Mark March 26 on your calendar as the next potentially bad day for the Liberal government, and remember that you heard about the Lannan Forest here first.
Not, of course, if you live in spectacular central Vancouver Island, where you've followed the saga of the sale of a lovely plot of forest, owned by the government, to a Courtenay golf course developer.
It's a long, tangled story. But on March 26 we find out how well the government's willingness to sell Crown land without any public notice or bidding serves the taxpayer.
Land and Water BC was ready last year to sell the Lannan Forest to Crown Isle Golf and Resort Community, the neighbouring development. The land wasn't advertised; no one else knew it was available; bids weren't sought. The government and the developer agreed on a price, which has so far remained secret. (The minister responsible then was Stan Hagen, also the MLA for the area.)
But the sale didn't play well in the Comox Valley. The Lannan Forest was lovely, criss-crossed with well-used hiking trails. Residents weren't ready to see it become private property.
They couldn't block the sale. But the deal was conditional on the land being annexed into the city of Courtenay. The council said OK, but community groups launched a petition drive that drew more than enough signatures to force a referendum. The annexation was off.
And that's when the government decided - belatedly - on a competitive bidding process.
That closed in February. Crown Isle won, offering $1.1 million. A group of local residents, along with the Comox-Strathcona Regional District, offered $621,000 to save the land for the community.
And most taxpayers will likely think that's OK. The area isn't starved for parkland, and if the land can be sold that may be more useful for people living in the rest of the province. It's a local issue, and the people who live there will decide how much they miss the forest.
What I want to know is how much Crown Isle would have paid for the property under the deal negotiated quietly before the public got involved.
Competitive bidding got us $1.1 million for our land. If the negotiated price was less than that - and published reports have suggested $300,000 to $400,000 - then we would have lost a lot of money.
Land and Water BC plans to sell $65 million worth of our land this year. A spokesman said about five per cent of sales have been through direct contact, like the first Crown Isle deal. The perception of unfairness led the Crown corporation to change its policy and virtually eliminate the direct sales, he said.
The new Lannan Forest deal closes March 26, which is when the government should release the transaction details.
We should expect the details of the original deal at the same time. Beyond potential embarrassment, there's no commercial reason to keep secret what is effectively the preliminary bid of the ultimate buyer.
Meanwhile, Land and Water BC faces some other problems.
Auditor General Wayne Strelioff has just decided to review a government decision forgiving $2.3 million in back rent and penalties levied on aquaculture companies that moved outside their tenures without approval. Land and Water BC cancelled the debts and returned some payments in 2001, months after the Liberals were elected.
Sierra Legal Defence Fund uncovered the deal through a freedom of information request.
Premier Gordon Campbell says the penalties were cancelled because the NDP government had allowed a big backlog of tenure applications. It's not that convincing, given the companies' own slowness in filing even basic reports a the same time.
Strelioff is going back through the paper trail, to find out why the companies got the money back and if the rules were followed.
Neither the fish farm fine review nor the Lannan Forest disclosures are likely to bring good news for the government.
Footnote: The week's most bizarre news was the revelation that the government is investigating allegations a senior health ministry bureaucrat choked a staffer in a workplace dispute. Charges have been filed; the health deputy minister is investigating; and the government has yet another problem to explain.

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