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Land development deal with B.C. First Nations launches new era

A Department of Defence "No Trespassing" sign that has been overgrown by a tree is seen on the Jericho Lands in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday October 4, 2014.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The precedent-setting deal the federal government and local First Nations reached on the Jericho military base and former RCMP headquarters in Vancouver will launch a new phase of land development in the region. But, experts say, unlike development on local reserve lands, cities will have direct control over this new wave of First Nations-involved development through their city zoning laws

Aboriginal-law specialists, developers, commercial brokers and city planners say the ability for First Nations to come to agreements – not just with the federal government, but with each other – is unlocking potential for many other sites in the region.

"That was a big first step for these First Nations. They haven't always seen eye to eye," said lawyer Aaron Bruce. His firm, Ratcliffe & Co., works with about 30 First Nations in the province, helping them deal with the legalities of commercial ventures on their land. "And the federal government and the First Nations found a way to reconcile their duelling interests. The exciting part is they are becoming partners in projects of this magnitude."

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In the announcement made last week, the federal government agreed to sell three significant pieces of its local property to its development arm, the Canada Lands Co., as well as to the Musqueam, the Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh as equal partners. Each band had a claim on the land.

The agreement, worth $307-million, means that development plans can begin for the 21-hectare Jericho Garrison, which is on Vancouver's west side near popular beaches, and on 8.5 hectares of land between Cambie and Oak that used to be the RCMP headquarters for the region. There is also a two-hectare property in West Vancouver.

The deal comes after a burst of activity in recent years, as local First Nations have moved ahead on other types of developments and agreements.

Several had started to work with local companies to build new commercial and residential developments on land to which they have clear title.

In the southern part of the Lower Mainland, the Tsawwassen First Nation has plans for malls, industrial development and new housing on its land near Delta, working with companies like Ivanhoé Cambridge, Onni Group and Aquilini Development and Construction Inc.

In North Vancouver, the Tsleil-Waututh have worked with Aquilini on several phrases of residential development near Deep Cove.

First Nations have also reached agreements with the federal government to get an outright share of sale price from properties like the Canada Post office downtown, the PavCo site near BC Place that will become home to a new casino, and the Pearson-Dogwood site near Cambie Street.

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But the Jericho and RCMP sites mark the first major agreement in which First Nations have agreed to partner with the federal government and each other to develop and share profits.

That sale echoes an agreement the province reached recently with the same three First Nations for two pieces of property in the Lower Mainland, a former liquor-distribution centre on East Broadway and a chunk of forest across the street from the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby.

Aquilini also partnered with the First Nations on those pieces of land, which are the first of what many expect to be more agreements with the province and First Nations.

"We've all said for a long time, 'Get ready for the First Nations, they're coming.' Now they're here," said David Negrin, president at Aquilini Development and Construction. "They hold the rights to so much land. There's going to be lots of this."

Mr. Negrin said he believes Lower Mainland residents won't see any big difference between First Nations-linked developments and others'.

On land that First Nations have acquired through recent negotiations, rather than being granted as reserve land, city zoning processes must be followed.

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Still, First Nations can petition to have a piece of acquired land added to the reserve – as is happening with what is known as Block K, the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club, adjacent to the existing Musqueam reserve.

That gives tax advantages, said Howie Charters, vice-president of consulting at Colliers International, who has worked with many First Nations as they become active land developers.

On reserve land, city property taxes aren't collected – only a fee for basic city services, which is much less – and the band can collect income from any commercial operations tax-free.

However, should a First Nations petition to add newly acquired federal or provincial land to a reserve, the local government has to agree to the change.

So far, First Nations' representatives have said they have no plans to petition to redesignate any of the Jericho or RCMP sites.

When First Nations do come to Vancouver's planning department, Mr. Charters said he believes their development plans will get faster and more kid-glove treatment. "I would think a First Nations file would be expedited because they have an ability to cause you some public pain."

Vancouver's planning department is still waiting to see even a glimpse of first concepts for the two tracts, with Jericho currently zoned for single-family residential and the RCMP site zoning restricted to institutional uses only.

The city's general manager of planning, Brian Jackson, said there will be a lot of work to do to figure out what kind of density and mix is appropriate for the two big tracts of land.

Though neighbourhood concepts were developed under CityPlan years ago, "there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then," Mr. Jackson said.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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