City of Powell River makes offer on urban forest

Status of tree ownership remains uncertain

With equal parts uncertainty and potential, the future of forested land stretching between Millennium Park and Townsite has been at the forefront of local debate.

While that future is far from being settled, City of Powell River’s recent offer to purchase the 132-acre parcel for $800,000 could mean city residents will have a much greater say in what happens to the land.

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The city announced at its special finance committee meeting on Tuesday, April 25, that it had offered to purchase the parcel, which is currently owned by PRSC Limited Partnership, a joint venture between Tla’amin Nation’s Tees’kwat Land Holdings and the city’s Powell River Waterfront Development Corporation.

The 132-acre parcel had a previous offer from international school Sino Bright, but when BC Agricultural Land Commission ruled against PRSC’s application to exclude a portion of it from the province’s agricultural land reserve, that deal fell apart. Almost all of the parcel is included in the reserve, except for a small area of the southeast corner near where the city’s former trash incinerator was located.

The parcel is part of an 800-acre portfolio of land holdings PRSC acquired from Catalyst Paper Corporation as surplus land in 2006.

City chief administrative officer Mac Fraser said that when the Sino Bright offer expired earlier this year, the city saw it as an opportunity and decided to act.

“Council is so interested in ensuring the good stewardship of this land that it said it is not enough to have the indirect control on potential development,” said Fraser. “It wants to have the direct control that comes with ownership.”

Cost of financing for the purchase is built into the city’s 2017 budget and five-year financial plan, if approved, through a five-year, short-term borrowing arrangement. Cost to taxpayers would be $160,000 per year, plus interest. The 2017 budget will go before council on Thursday, May 4.

City councillor Russell Brewer, chair of the city’s finance committee, said he views the potential purchase as being strategic.

“It’s a good investment,” said Brewer. “Whenever we can acquire control of a property it gives more options and flexibility to decide what we want to do with it.”

Consulting biologist and Powell River resident Andrew Bryant said he was initially surprised by the announcement.

“I was gobsmacked,” said Bryant.

His first thought, he said, was that someone had actually taken the question over preserving the land seriously and saw it “for the extraordinary opportunity it really is,” he added.

But then he said his enthusiasm began to wane as he thought someone must have other plans.

“The idea of gaining control of the property is inherently a good one,” said Bryant. “If the city owns it, it’s a plus, but it doesn’t change or negate the question about the tree ownership.”

Fraser said the city does not have any predetermined plans for the land and is leaving its use open at the moment.

“One option for it is to do nothing, just leave it in the beautiful state it is in now,” said Fraser, “but this is the last piece Island Timberlands owns the trees on and we’re looking to own the property.”

Fraser said the city faced similar circumstances with tree ownership when it acquired the Millennium Park land.

“As it stands right now, there is the potential that Island Timberlands would log it,” said Fraser. “We spent a number of years raising funds to buy the last of the Millennium Park trees, so that’s an option.”

Brewer said if the city owns the land, council will be able to have more definite control over how it is used in the future.

“We have all kinds of options,” said Brewer. “I view a range of opportunities, anything from agricultural to green space.”

Brewer added that council will need to engage the community in the discussion on what makes sense there.

“If council lands somewhere in the middle, I think we will have done a good job,” he said.

Fraser said he is trying to take care to make sure everyone has realistic expectations.

“We don’t own the trees, so we don’t have any control over that,” he added.

But before any logging can happen on the land, Island Timberlands will first have to submit a harvest plan to the landowners. Then the landowners would have to apply for a timber mark that would allow for the trees to be moved off the property.

Fraser said the city would not be able to deny any harvest plan as a means to stop logging.

“We can’t say ‘no, you can’t have your trees,’” he added.

Fraser said that as the city considers the purchase, it has sought advice on the legal ownership of the trees on the property. He said it is his understanding that there is a challenge by some who say Island Timberlands has no right to harvest because the one-time timber-cutting rights were extinguished 20 years ago.

“We’re not confident in that interpretation,” he said.

Fraser added that Island Timberlands’ right to cut is also challenged by another approach, which states that the trees that have grown there since 1998, the year timber rights for the land were separated from the ownership of the land, are not the forest company’s trees either.

“That one we’re not sure on, so we’re seeking legal advice on it,” said Fraser.

Fraser said at this point the city is proceeding with the land purchase under the expectation that the trees belong to Island Timberlands.

“If we find out that some or all of them might not be, then that would be good news,” he added. “The purchase offer is in with the expectation that Island Timberlands will exercise its right to log in there at some time.”

In the fall, Bryant asked PRSC in a letter to apply to BC Supreme Court for proceedings brought by petition in order to gain some certainty on the question.

“The process is designed to deal with issues such as this,” said Bryant. “Here’s a cheap and easy way to find out who owns the trees.”

Bryant said he is happy the city has asked for its lawyers to look into the matter, but asking the BC Supreme Court for its opinion will be neither time consuming or costly.

“Why just give the trees away to Island Timberlands because we historically have believed they own the trees?” he said. “That’s not due diligence.”

Copyright © Powell River Peak

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