Alberni officials to mull impact of reserve lands policy change

A federal proposal to change additions to reserve lands would impact municipal land taxes, zoning, and planning, Alberni city officials said

Ottawa is proposing to revise its additions-to-reserve policy, which would allow aboriginal groups to buy property in any city then convert it to reserve land.

The change could have far-reaching effects for municipalities like Port Alberni, and that has councillors concerned.

The policy has been on the books since 1972, and was mostly used to accommodate population growth.

The revision is intended to fast track economic development on reserves, a report prepared for the Metro Vancouver board notes.

Under the old policy, land acquired had to be approximately contiguous to existing reserve land. But that requirement is struck from the proposed plan, creating the potential for any band in B.C. to buy distant land for economic development.

The move has concerned Port Alberni city councillors Jack McLeman, who asked staff to investigate the impacts of this federal policy on the city.

“As far as I know the city would lose a piece of land, and it would be exempt from zoning and municipal taxes,” McLeman said. “We need to know how this will impact us, if it does.”

The issue arose after a blanket letter requesting support from a Lower Mainland municipality was included in councillors’ informational correspondence earlier in October.

City council doesn’t have any trepidation over the plan, nor do they wish create an issue where there isn’t one, city manager Ken Watson said. But “the potential loss of autonomy and tax base are concerns.”

The Port Alberni report has not yet been made public.

Issues outlined in the Vancouver report, including inconsistent land-use planning and problems recovering utility and service costs from lands converted to reserves, are consistent with concerns outlined in the Alberni report, Watson said.

The plan makes allowance for a one-time payment to the municipality to offset future tax revenue loss, Watson said. “But it doesn’t recover all the revenues forgone because the property still has to be serviced.”

Uncertainty could be introduced into municipal planning by allowing something to be built that wouldn’t have to conform to zoning requirements because it would be considered federal reserve lands, Watson said.

“Potentially, anything could be built.”

The city has good relations with the Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations, which already have reserve land in Port Alberni. “Certainly we would want them to come to the table but that’s not required under the agreement,” he said.

“In general the process could disadvantage municipalities.”

They could refuse utility servicing on a property, Watson said. “But if a property is already developed then it’s hard to turn it off.”

The Vancouver report notes that the new plan renders local governments adjunct, and future involvement would be relegated to reviews and assessments instead of consultation.

But consultation with the Alberni Clayoquot Regional District is a must, chief administrative officer Russell Dyson said.

The ARCD reviewed the plan and made recommendations to the board. “Local governments should be included as a referral,” Dyson said. “And that service agreements be required in order to provide service to any addition.”

The Hupacasath First Nation already has water, sewer and fire service agreements with the city in addition to quarterly joint-council meetings. “It’s part of a protocol we signed with them. We’d rather be good neighbours than bad,” Chief Coun. Steven Tatoosh said.

The “Indian boogie man” scenarios haven’t reared their heads so far in the tribe’s business dealings with the city, he said. Councils from the Hupacasath and city are slated to meet next week and the issue of satellite reserves is on the agenda, Tatoosh added.

Calls to Tseshaht Chief Councillor Hugh Braker weren’t returned before deadline.

A healthy dose of problem solving and not strife is in order, said former Hupacasath chief councillor Judith Sayers, now a law professor at the University of Victoria (UVic).

“It’s easier to work together than to be at each others’ necks,” she said.“First Nations aren’t going anywhere and the future is where the city is,” she said.

Any land considered would have to meet the criterion of a strong business case. “It would have to be a nice size property, but it would have to have vision and a reasonable plan with feasible economic development,” Sayers said.

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