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Other groups could set sights on TLC properties

Oct 25 2012
Properties owned by The Land Conservancy of B.C., including the campground adjacent to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, above, could be sold if TLC can't afford to pay outstanding back taxes. 

Properties owned by The Land Conservancy of B.C., including the campground adjacent to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, above, could be sold if TLC can't afford to pay outstanding back taxes.

Photograph by: Bruce Stotesbury, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

The Land Conservancy is the only land trust in the province facing financial problems and other organizations are already considering whether they could take over its nature properties, says the head of a provincial umbrella organization.

"All that matters at the end of the day is that the properties are protected," said Paul McNair, executive director of the Land Trust Alliance of B.C., which has 28 members ranging from neighborhood groups to national organizations.

"I am optimistic that the nature properties will be protected."

However, the future of the expensive-to-maintain and, in some cases, heavily mortgaged heritage properties is not so clear, McNair said.

"That's more difficult to address. ... If there is a community group in the area, they might be able to take over the management," he said.

Extensive meetings have been held with the TLC board over the past few months and the discussions will continue as that organization struggles with its finances, McNair said.

If the TLC decides to start divesting its proper-ties, it is likely each one would be looked at individually by local land trusts.

"They would look at whether it was in their mandate, in their geographic zone and whether they have the financial resources to manage it," he said.

The cash-strapped TLC is an anomaly among B.C. land trusts because it used mortgages to buy properties throughout the province, McNair said.

A survey of member groups - excluding the TLC - conducted earlier this month found that only one has a deficit, which amounted to $15,000, he said.

"We discovered that all of them, except for one, actually purchased properties outright or did the fundraising in advance," McNair said.

"One has a property with a $1-million mortgage, but has pledges already in place to pay that off."

Some have covenants on properties but do not own the land, and others act as stewards and then pass the property over to other groups or governments.

The major organizations all have policies ensuring that fundraising includes an endowment of 15 per cent to pay for land management.

All groups except one reported their income was stable or increased over the last year, McNair said.

The key is that projects are usually based in communities and people in that community are emotionally and personally connected to the piece of land, he said.

In contrast, TLC bought properties throughout the province with private mortgages, sometimes re-mortgaging to finance the next purchase or management costs - a strategy that enabled the group to act quickly on properties under threat.

"Some of these properties would not have been protected otherwise, so the end result is really, really admirable," McNair said.

TLC is struggling to find $1 million to pay off short-term debt, including interest on mortgages and severance and vacation payments for laid-off staff.

A brief financial statement given to members this week showed operating expenses exceeding revenue by $190,000 in the last fiscal year.

Current liabilities are $1.7 million and long-term liabilities $6.1 million.

The group holds more than 50 properties valued at $48 million, but many, which have been bought with public donations, have covenants and it is unlikely they could be sold at market value.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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