The Strathcona Regional District is pursuing a former school site that the province says School District 72 improperly leased out.
The regional district is interested in either purchasing or leasing property at the site of the former Stuart Island School which closed in 1984.
The intent is to turn it over to the Stuart Island Community Association, which has adjoining land and has for several years been trying to acquire the coveted property in order to turn it into parkland. But that may prove challenging.
Steve Thomson, minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations, said the property actually belongs to the province, and was granted to School District 72 (SD72) in 1953 under a trust clause that requires the land to be used for school purposes. The clause obligates the school district to transfer the land back to the province once the site is no longer needed for such purposes, but the property was never formally given back.
“It is understood that SD72 no longer requires this site for school purpose,” Thomson wrote in a letter to the regional district. “We understand that SD72 has provided a lease to the Stuart Island Community Association to occupy the land for purposes other than school purpose. This action is in conflict with the trust clause.”
Kevin Patrick, secretary-treasurer for School District 72, said SD72 attempted to revert the land back to the province as Crown land in 2012 but said because the talks occurred before his time with the school district, he’s unclear as to why the move was unsuccessful.
“As part of our current facility plan, the board of education does intend to try again to address this issue,” Patrick said. “The school district will be resuming conversations with both the Crown and the Strathcona Regional District in the next couple months.”
Patrick added that the property was leased to the Stuart Island Community Association with the original intent being that the site would be used for school purposes.
“It was provided to the Stuart Island Community Association as a community benefit for the construction of a community hall, which would be available to the district for school use,” he said, adding that “there has been minimal financial benefit to the school district.”
He said the school district will be considering what to do with the Stuart Island property – along with a handful of other surplus properties – over the next three years.
“During the process, history and details, including thorough title and covenant searches, will be conducted on each parcel prior to any action being taken,” Patrick said.
Minister Thomson said SD 72 would need to transfer the land back to the province before it could consider an application from the regional district for the Stuart Island property.
He added that the regional district could submit an application with the current improvements intact.
“If a Crown grant or lease could be issued with improvements intact it could potentially reduce SD72’s site remediation costs and provide a desired community asset to SRD (Strathcona Regional District),” Thomson wrote. “Ministry staff would be pleased to meet with SRD and representatives from SD72 to outline the process by which school property is returned to the Crown and then potentially made available for community uses.”
At the April 13 regional district board meeting, Alternate Dan MacKenzie, who was filling in for Area C Director Jim Abram, said that Abram wanted to pursue the property and take Thomson up on his offer.
“It would give us the opportunity to try and acquire this site,” he said.
But Campbell River Director Andy Adams was hesitant.
“I have yet to see a plan as to what it is that we’re going to do with this property,” he said. “What’s the deal? As a director for the SRD I have a fiduciary responsibility as to what the plan may be and the potential financial impacts.”
Campbell River Director Michele Babchuk was concerned the regional district was “putting the cart before the horse” when the school district has not yet even begun to discuss which of its surplus properties, if any, will be disposed of.
Area D Director Brenda Leigh said there was no harm in getting more information and expressing an interest.
“It’s a natural asset,” Leigh said. “It doesn’t hurt asking the powers that be to let us know when it comes up. It’s very preliminary.”
In the end, the board voted to contact the province to begin the process for transfer of the Stuart Island School site by grant or lease to the regional district.