Parcels of Crown land on Burke Mountain, north of the Fraser River at Coquitlam, sold in 2014. (Ministry of Citizens’ Services)

Land sale went through under market value, B.C. auditor confirms

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B.C.’s auditor general has confirmed a 2014 sale of provincial Crown land for development in the Lower Mainland was for as little as two thirds of its appraised value, but concludes there was no collusion or bid rigging involved in the sale.

Auditor General Carole Bellringer’s report on the two-year program of asset sales by the B.C. Liberal government raised 97 per cent of the appraised value of properties, except for a group of parcels on Burke Mountain in Coquitlam.

Of the 21 parcels covering 584 acres, 14 were sold to a single bidder, Wesbild Holdings Ltd., a long-time residential developer in the region. The price of $85 million represented 66 per cent of the value.

The sale of another four parcels in the same group to the City of Coquitlam for $11.8 million netted 80 per cent of the value.

At the time, local MLA Mike Farnworth said the hot real estate market and significant development already completed in the Burke Mountain area made the Wesbild deal look like a “fire sale.” The NDP traced $900,000 in donations to the B.C. Liberal Party from Wesbild director Hassan Khosrowshahi since 2000, individually and through his companies, Burke Mountain, Wesbild, Predator Ridge, Inwest, Westwood Plateau and others.

Farnworth and NDP leader John Horgan accused the B.C. Liberal government of rushing the sale to have it on the books by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, to improve their financial picture in the wake of the harmonized sales tax withdrawal.

“We did not find any evidence of bid rigging, collusion or bias during this audit,” Bellringer said in the report. “However, bias in relation to some of the sale was perceived and raised in the legislature and reported in the media.”

The report notes that the real estate marketing was conducted by Colliers International after an open bid for the job. Bellringer recommends the province’s property agency get individual bids on properties rather than group bids that took place at Burke Mountain.

The remainder of the sales in the “release of assets for economic generation” program, from 2013 to 2015, had prices amounting to 97 per cent of appraised value, the audit concluded.

Citizens Services Minister Jinny Sims said the B.C. government has already made significant changes to its Crown land sale system, and is bringing in an independent consultant to look for further improvements.

Sims said the sale came at a time when the B.C. Liberal government was in a hurry to raise a certain amount of money through asset sales before an election where they needed to show a balanced budget.

The procedure has been changed to make sure each individual parcel of Crown land is examined for value and potential use, such as a school or hospital, Sims said. She pointed to the lack of schools in the region of Coquitlam where the developments occurred, and the sale of a Crown parcel in Surrey that had been designated for a new hospital.

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