Taking action to defuse the lawsuit

This post is a “Digging Deep” column, “Garden City Lands need ALR-acceptable plan,” in today’s Richmond Review. In addition, this post has links to related documents at the end.

There’s an “elephant in the room” on the Garden City Lands. It’s the lawsuit the Musqueam Indian Band filed against the City of Richmond last year.

The context is a flawed 2005 deal for dense development on the lands. Besides the federal government as original owner, there were three partners: the band, the city, and Canada Lands Company CLC as federal land disposer.

In its most worrisome claim, the band wants Richmond to pay $350 million for “unjust enrichment” from buying the lands ($3 million an acre, minus the purchase price).

All is not lost. The city’s new lawyers filed a top-notch statement of defence, a breath of fresh hope.

A flashback: Back in the 2005 deal, the city had agreed to help strip “the people’s lands” of their protection in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Canada Lands was responsible for the application.

The attempt was weak. The Agricultural Land Commission rejected it in 2006.

The city then went beyond what the deal required of it. With an excess of goodwill, it began a two-year effort to help Canada Lands to try again. I think that was fabulous for the partners but not for the citizens.

Note that it was upper staff, perhaps along with the mayor as chief executive, who had to implement the deal. In contrast, it did not restrict the freedom of our council members as local legislators.

As it happens, Coun. Harold Steves kept raising public awareness to keep the lands in the ALR. Strangely, the band chief reacted with a threatening letter, published by this paper in June 2007. It portended “an army of lawyers producing large legal bills for the city and others.”

The partners amassed a huge—and hugely expensive—second application to the Agricultural Land Commission. And they hired public relations companies to sell the public on the wonders of dense development of the Garden City Lands.

Grassroots action to respond with the true story was vital. It felt like paddling in a tsunami, but it beat being swept away.

As individuals and small groups and then a coalition, citizens rose to the challenge in 2008.  They showed the public and the commission the greater need for food security, conservation, and open-land park for community wellness.

In the commission’s 2009 ruling, the people won. The lands stayed safe in the ALR.

In 2010, Canada Lands sold the Garden City Lands to Richmond for $59 million. The band participated and got half the profit.

Just days later, the band sued Richmond for more. That step had been enabled when the city only implied (not explicitly stated) an intended condition of its purchase offer. The legal style the chief had divulged in 2007 then came into play, trumping wished-for goodwill.

The lawsuit depicts the city’s excess effort as negligence and breach of duty.

Now, in 2011, the case may be tried soon. This time the city can be one with the citizens. For a start, we must disprove the “unjust enrichment.”

The claim assumes that the city’s price for the Garden City Lands was below their market value outside the ALR. The band says the city unjustly enriched itself that way.

But the city isn’t enriching itself if it doesn’t intend to get the lands out of the ALR. (It would fail if it tried, but that’s another matter.)

In spite of the lawsuit, a couple of councillors have publicly mused about non-ALR uses on the lands. Not wise!

Instead (based on independent legal advice to us), the city could be putting an ALR-acceptable plan into effect on the Garden City Lands right now. That would prove its good intent once and for all.

The key is to act without delay—with firm commitment to a long-term ALR plan.

The Garden City Lands series of surveys, open houses, public hearing, and public input to the commission was Richmond’s most exhaustive consultation ever (just ahead of the late-1980s one that led to today’s Terra Nova Rural Park and Natural Area). Those who listened know what the people want.

As with Terra Nova, Richmond’s capable parks staff and community partners can make it happen.

Final note: I see the business called “Musqueam Indian Band” as different from the Musqueam people. In my experience, the Musqueam people have earned respect.

___________

Links to related documents:

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