Pay out $350 million more?

For those of us who live in Richmond, B.C., our city council can either save or waste $5,000 for our household in 2011.

Actually the amount may be higher, since it’s based on just the last of the Musqueam Indian Band’s many claims against us. In a reply to Richmond’s lawyers, it alleges that “a member of the Defendant’s Council admitted that the Lands are worth $3 million an acre. The Lands comprise 136 acres.”

In other words, our opponents want Richmond to pay about $350 million beyond the price the city paid for the Garden City lands. That’s like $5,000 each from 70,000 homes. (One could see it as part of our opponents’ bargaining position for an out-of-court settment, but that’s a level of detail for another place.)

After listening to an audio recording of the meeting (March 8, 2010), I now know that the councillor’s land-value figure was really for sports fields elsewhere in Richmond. That’s a window on the kind of tactics we’re facing. Fortunately, I’m told, we now have lawyers who are top-notch. They are John J. L. Hunter and his Hunter Litigations Chambers team.

A small digression: Of course, the City will need to make full use of that team. They were not the lawyers for the Garden City Lands purchase agreement, which had obvious omissions that left it wide open for the Musqueam litigation against us. I should add my opinion that Richmond’s senior staff and council, especially the mayor as our chief executive signing the agreement, should take much of the responsiblity and perhaps even most of it.

In any case, we (our Richmond council on our behalf) can take a complementary high-impact step at low cost. It’s related to the other side’s efforts to paint the city as unjustly enriching itself. They’d like to prove that the city aims to raise the dollar value of the property by getting it out of the Agricultural Land Reserve—in bad faith, trying harder for its own gain than it did for Musqueam gain.

The low-cost way to deflate that argument is to prove that the Garden City lands will stay in the ALR in perpetuity. For example, a simple approach would be to commit to a covenant to that effect with the Agricultural Land Commission. In essence, it would be a special kind of conservation covenant.

That’s fitting, since the community wants to keep the lands green in the ALR for agricultural, ecological, and open-land park uses for community wellness. And they mean for now and for future generations, “our children’s children.” No doubt the covenant would express the intended configuration of ongoing uses with broad strokes to both be clear about the intent and allow flexibility.

The people’s vision emerged in the exhaustive consultation with citizens on the issue.  The consultation initiated by the City of Richmond and its development partners included a long series of lengthy open houses, public surveys, and a 23.5‑hour public hearing, mostly in February and March of 2008.

The previous year, community groups had set things rolling with a town hall meeting that drew an overflow crowd of more than 200 people to the Richmond campus of what’s now Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

After the public hearing, there was an outpouring of citizens’ input to the Agricultural Land Commission from 150 groups and individuals, much of it thorough and articulate, with 96% of the contributors favoring ALR uses for the Garden City Lands. All of it was and is available on the ALC website.

Besides remaining in the ALR, the Garden City lands remain city-zoned as agricultural, and they remain as public open space in the community plan. In essence, what the property was when the Musqueam gained and sold an interest is what it is now and can always be.

By the way, the commission now has no-nonsense leadership, as discussed in other posts on this blog. In the scenario of a third attempt to get the Garden City lands out of the ALR, citizens would describe the harm. I’m confident that the commission, with its focus on long-term needs, would say “No” again.

By this time next year, Richmond may be poorer by what amounts to $5,000 per household because of a massive payout. More likely, though, Richmond residents will be thanking council for “getting things right.” Happy new year!

Next-day update, to be clear, in response to an email reply from a Friend of Garden City: My opinion is that paying out anything at all (in money or in kind) would be too much, while the legal costs for the court process instead of a compromise to avoid them would be worthwhile. I hope that the lawyers for the City of Richmond can find a socially just way to seek and obtain costs and damages.

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