A local housing project is on shaky ground following a decision from a municipal committee last week.
Bowen Island Resilient Community Housing (BIRCH) and Bowen Island Health Centre Foundation recently learned the results of the Mayor’s Standing Committee on the Community Lands assessment of Lot 3.
In meetings closed to the public, the committee recommended that the rental housing project, BIRCH, receive 0.11 hectares on the eastern edge of the land parcel, just under a quarter of the previously committed lands.
The committee recommended that the health centre receive approximately half of its previously allotted land, 0.08 hectares. The two land parcels are adjacent to one another.
While Mayor Gary Ander said that the Health Centre Foundation accepted the committee’s recommendation (the foundation declined to comment directly until after next week’s council meeting), BIRCH said in a letter to council that it is rejecting the offer.
The non-profit said that due to a rocky outcrop on their allotted parcel and parking requirement of 10 spaces (possibly underground), the proposed project would be cost-prohibitive.
Last November, council instructed staff to enter into an agreement to lease 0.48 hectares of Lot 3 to BIRCH.
The non-profit’s conceptual plan mapped out approximately 40 rental units, built in phases, on the parcel.
In February council “paused” the agreement to lease directive until after the steering committee came back with its findings.
The standing committee is comprised of three community members, three council members, three staff liaisons and one consultant. Its mandate is to, among other things, develop “a high-level overview of the best uses of the Community Lands,” to assess marketability and to identify lands that should be held for future use.
Lot 3 was its first priority.
The flat parcel of land off Miller Road, across from the ambulance station, is widely regarded as the most valuable parcel of the municipally owned Community Lands.
The committee met with both the Bowen Island Health Centre Foundation and BIRCH before coming to its decision.
Ander said that council discussed and supported the standing committee’s recommendations in a closed council meeting April 8. However, the previous council resolutions to enter into lease agreements with the Health Centre Foundation and BIRCH are still on the books, and have yet to be rescinded.
“We’ve had lengthy discussions with BIRCH about it,” said Ander. “[The recommendation] went on to council and it was approved by council. “Obviously it wasn’t very well received.”
Ander said that the land reductions were tough decisions for the standing committee.
Ander said that much of the land should be retained for the future with densification in mind.
“We’re not really prepared to give up all of Lot 3 for housing,” he said, adding that the door is still open for negotiations with BIRCH and that the committee is willing to consider leasing a similar amount of land on a different lot.
“We want it to happen,” said Ander, "but [they] can’t have as much of the prime, prime land.”
“It’s by far the most expensive piece of property in our property chest.”
“There’s value in this property and we can’t just give it away,” he said. “We need to make some money off of this.”
The municipality bought the Community Lands in 2005 from Metro Vancouver for $2 million. The plan back then was to finance the purchase by selling off some of the land.
To date, none of the land has been sold, adding a financial burden to taxpayers this year as the $2 million transfers from temporary to long-term debt in 2019.
Ander said that the new fire hall on Lot 3, the subject of many letters to council and the editor, hadn’t been reconsidered. “It’s an emergency service we require,” he said.
Ander also suggested that there could be other housing projects on the horizon besides BIRCH but wouldn’t expand on the comment.
Robyn Fenton, executive director of BIRCH, said that she’s open to any and all alternatives to the proposal from the committee, but that the organization isn’t willing to move forward with that particular offer.
In the letter to council, BIRCH says that the land it has been allotted is the most challenging and difficult to build on part of Lot 3 (co-signatory Fenton is an architect by trade) and that it doesn’t believe that the size and location of the site was the result of a “public, transparent, or collaborative process.”
The letter also points out that every candidate in the 2018 municipal election explicitly supported the BIRCH project.
“This dramatic change to the municipality’s commitment alters all our conversations with funders and undermines all our work done to date. This is not how we, as partners, expected to be treated,” said BIRCH in its letter.
“If Mayor and Council wish to reconsider their approach to how these community lands are utilized, BIM should undertake a comprehensive community planning process, similar to those for business licensing and short-term rentals,” said BIRCH.
“The value of these lands should be determined by Bowen Island Community Members – not solely by a hand-picked committee in closed meetings,” it said.
Fenton said that the next step will be to go back to negotiating with the municipality.
“I’m very optimistic moving forward,” she said.
Disclosure: the author of this piece is a tenant of the president of BIRCH.