Saturday, May 5, 2012

Victoria: Who Owns What?

Once upon a time, and for a very long time, there was no such thing as land ownership.  The earth, water, and sky was honoured, revered, and respected as the great sustainer of life. Then one day the white people arrived, with all their ideas about commerce and property rights and patriarchy, and they began to take control of the land and the people and all the creatures. 

Fast forward to May 2012, and an informal gathering at a little coffee shop in what’s now known as Victoria.  Councilor Shellie Gudgeon is living up to her election campaign promising to help strengthen communities.  She’s meeting with whoever shows up at the neighbourhood’s monthly coffee/tea meeting, listening to our concerns and sharing hers.

Since last week’s announcement that there is some intention, from elected officials, to sell off public land and naming rights, one of Shellie’s main concerns is about mapping what is public and what is private land in her electoral riding of Victoria.  She believes that, prior to rushing ahead with a significant waterfront land sale, the city ought to a) consult with the electorate who collectively own that land and b) prepare a cohesive vision of the waterfront for the future, taking into consideration all the vision planning that has been prepared in the past.

This makes sense.  Surprisingly, according to what Shellie has been able to discern, not only is there no coherent cohesive vision of what Victoria’s waterfront might look like for future generations, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus about which lands the city currently owns. Apparently city staff recently created such a map, at the request of Councilor Ben Isitt, but there’s no agreement about all the information presented on it. For example, the greenspace at the north east corner of the Bay Bridge (near Point Ellice) is either privately owned, or it’s city property, depending on who you speak with.

No wonder we tent city advocates can’t get the city to agree to give us a small piece of land so local homeless folk can create their own community, like they so successfully did in Portland … the city doesn’t even know what land it has to offer up! 

But several of them want to proceed with the sale of Point Hope.  Why the big rush, Shellie wonders.  The argument, she says, is about contamination.  What if the land’s polluted, after all these years of ship building on it.  Wouldn’t it be better to off-load it?

Wouldn’t it be better to have some kind of environmental policy in place, inspect the land to see if it meets those standards, and then work with the leaseholders to protect it from contamination?  Why would the leaseholders want to buy the land, if they know it’s contaminated?  It doesn’t make sense.  Why not slow down, consider the overall future vision for all of Victoria’s waterfront, and talk to the people who collectively own the land and pay the city salaries?  And tell us what’s really going on behind the scenes at City Hall.

Shellie and Ben are the only two councilors who voted against the motion put forward at the last meeting.  I went to the city’s archives to find the wording of the motion, and am unable to find any direct reference to it in either the agenda or the minutes.  Check for yourself, the meeting in question took place on April 12th and the minutes are available online at  I guess that’s how ‘in-camera’ works.  We don’t hear about private decisions until weeks later, after who knows what else has happened in the meantime.  As Shellie hinted, if she and Ben hadn’t been there to vote against it moving forward immediately, it’d likely be a done deal by now. 

According to an email Ben sent on April 30th, “Today, City Council released an in-camera decision to consider an offer to purchase four parcels of City-owned land on Victoria Harbour to the Ralmax Group of Companies (the Point Hope Shipyard lands).”   According to his website (, “The decision to consider an offer from Ralmax was made at 11:30PM on the night of Thursday, April 12, in the absence of any written report from staff on the benefits and rationale for selling the land at Point Hope. I moved a motion to postpone consideration to allow more time for discussion, but this motion was narrowly defeated on a 5-4 vote. The main motion to consider the offer from Ralmax carried 7-2, with only Councillor Shellie Gudgeon and I opposed.”

I asked Shellie if she thinks the money is intended to help pay for the new bridge, but she seemed convinced that the money couldn’t be used directly for that.  Legally, it would be required to go into the Land Reserve Fund, and this was explained in the city’s press release: “The proceeds of any sale of City lands must flow to the City’s reserve funds and cannot be transferred into the City’s annual operating budget. In accordance with City policy, 10 percent of the proceeds of any City land sale must flow to the Parks and Greenways Acquisition Reserve Fund, with the balance flowing to the Tax Sale Land Reserve Fund.”

When I asked, Shellie didn’t know how much money is already in the Land Reserve Fund, and it makes me wonder why the city would be in such a big hurry to add more to it.

We also talked about the city’s promise to create some park land to replace the land they took out of park status a few years ago to build the Rock Bay Shelter.  I was pleased to hear that Shellie had advocated (as an unelected taxpayer) to keep the shelter in its original space.  As a downtown business person, she said, she has worked alongside the Salvation Army shelter for many years and because they are careful to consider the public appearance of what goes on outside their shelter, she has no problems with it being there.  She understands that ghettoization of any socio-economic class of people, whether rich or poor, does not contribute to a healthy community.  People of all sorts need to live and work alongside each other.  Besides moving a segment of the homeless community a significant distance from the downtown services they need, the city has never replaced the park land they took.  Our neighbourhood, in South Jubilee, has a small, privately owned garry oak meadow (unofficially known as Kasapi Corner) that would make a fantastic park.  Maybe Shellie can help us facilitate that.

Meanwhile, all city dwellers are invited to a Public Forum to discuss the potential sale of city lands.  Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend that meeting, but if I were I’d like to know why the other councilors think it’s a good idea to privatize public land, and what’s the connection, if any, of this piece of land with the proposed mega-yacht harbour just around the waterfront’s corner.  

Don’t forget, all this is happening on what many of us refer to as Stolen Native Land. 

Selling City-Owned Land
Hosted by Councillors Shellie Gudgeon & Ben Isitt
At the Garry Oak Room (Fairfield Community Centre, 1335 Thurlow Rd off Moss)
            Should public land ever be sold?
            Should public land sales always be secret?
            How do we determine whether land is surplus to current or future needs?
            Should Victoria have a policy and procedure for public land sales?
Learn what your fellow-citizens think about these questions. State your views.
            All welcome.
Wednesday, 9 May 2012, 7 pm