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Canada: BC Court Of Appeal Rules That Contaminated Property Must Be Assessed Using Highest and Best Use

Article by Luke Dineley and Jacob Jerome Gehlen

Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

In a highly anticipated decision for the valuation of contaminated property in British Columbia, the BC Court of Appeal overturned a decision of the BC Supreme Court and set out how contaminated property should be assessed for tax purposes.

The case involved a Brownfield – a contaminated commercial property with potential for economic redevelopment. The property in question had been operated as a retail gas station, automobile dealership, and repair shop. The soil on the property was contaminated, and the contamination had spread to neighbouring properties. The owner of the property was in considerable financial distress. In addition to tax arrears, legal bills, and accounting bills, she was defending a claim from the owner of a neighbouring property. She therefore arranged to sell the property to this owner through a share purchase agreement for $42,363.24, which was sufficient to cover her debts. She also obtained a full indemnity from any legal liabilities she might have in the future regarding the contamination. The existing structure on the property was renovated and converted into income-producing multi-tenant commercial retail units.

Abbotsford, British Columbia

In 2013, the property was assessed for taxation purposes.

The assessor had valued the land and improvements at $975,000. The property owner, Victory Motors (Abbotsford) Ltd. (“Victory Motors”), appealed, and the Property Assessment Review Panel reduced that assessment to $500,000. Victory Motors appealed to the Property Assessment Appeal Board (“Board”), claiming the property had no value. The Board reinstated the original assessment. The owner appealed again, to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. That court found that the Board had erred in law, and remitted the matter to the Board for reconsideration. The Assessor appealed that decision.

The Court of Appeal allowed the Assessor’s appeal and restored the Board’s decision.

The issue before the Court was this: how does one properly assess the value of contaminated land for taxation purposes? The assessor determined that because renovation into a two-storey structure would require remediation, the best use of the property was as it currently stood: a one-storey commercial structure. The assessor’s estimate did not otherwise take into account the presence of contamination. Their approach is known as the “income approach,” whereby a property’s value is determined according to the subject property’s highest possible annual net income. The Board agreed with the assessor’s method and ultimate evaluation.

The Supreme Court, however, held that the Board had erred in law. The chambers judge found that the assessor had ignored the property’s brownfield status, which any potential buyer would have in mind as a risk. The chambers judge further held that the land should be valued not according to value for the present owner, but according to the market in accordance with the BCCA’s decision in Southam Inc. (Pacific Newspaper Group Inc,) v. British Columbia (Assessor of Area No 14 – Surrey/White Rock), 2004 BCCA 245 [Southam]. Because there was no evidence a competitive market for the property existed, the Board’s decision was therefore unreasonable.

However, after the BCSC decision was released, a five-judge division of the BCCA overturned Southam in Assessor of Area #01 – Capital v. Nav Canada, 2016 BCCA 71, leave to appeal refused [Nav Canada]. Nav Canada supports the Board’s income-based approach.

Applying Nav Canada, the Court of Appeal allowed the assessor’s appeal and restored the Board’s decision. The Court applied the “highest and best use” principle of assessment, and found that a multi-tenant retail building was the “best use” for the purposes of assessment. The Court held: “that property has value to its current owner can be a sufficient basis on which to determine its value.” In Nav Canada, the BCCA had held that even where there was no other potential purchaser, “one must regard the owner as one of the possible purchasers.” The Court in this case agreed, and held that “when, for whatever reason, there is no market for a property that has value to its owner, that owner can serve as a proxy for a competitive market.”

Going forward, property owners should be aware that even though there are no purchasers lining up to bid for a brownfield, that property may still be assessed at a high value for taxation purposes.

About BLG

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About the Authors

Luke Dineley is a partner in both our Insurance and Tort Liability Group and Environmental Law Group in Borden Ladner Gervais LLP‘s Vancouver office. Luke focuses his practice on civil litigation, with an emphasis on insurance and tort law, and environmental law.  In the area of environmental law, Luke’s experience includes representing and advising clients on a wide variety of contaminated site issues relating to both commercial and residential properties — including cost-recovery actions on behalf of plaintiffs and defendants. In addition, Luke has represented and advised major companies on environmental regulatory compliance, emergency spill responses, and environmental prosecutions. Luke is also an executive board member of the British Columbia Environmental Industry Association and frequently publishes and speaks in the area of environmental law.

 

Jacob Jerome Gehlen is an articling student at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP‘s Vancouver office. He has a Juris Doctor law degree from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University.

Potential $9 million incentive to Developer for Clean-up and Develop Brownfield Site in Ottawa

As reported by the CBC, Ottawa city staff are proposing to offer a developer more than $9 million in incentives to build a multi-use building with three residential towers across from the future Bayview Station light rail station, approximately 2 kilometers (one mile) west of Parliament Hill.

TIP Albert GP Inc. owns the property at 900 Albert St. at the corner of Albert and City Centre Avenue, and is proposing a building that would have 1,632 residential units as well as retail and office space.

The site, a one-time rail yard and later a storage yard and snow disposal site, is eligible for the city’s brownfields rehabilitation grant program.  Under the program, developers can apply to have municipal development charges and soil remediation costs reduced, up to about half the expected cost of the cleanup.

City staff are recommending a grant not exceeding $8,255,397 over a maximum of 10 years, according to a report tabled in advance of next week’s finance and economic development committee meeting.

The property is also along the path of city sanitary and storm sewers, and for the development to go forward, the builder will have to move that infrastructure to an adjacent city property.

While the developer would pay for that work to be done, the city would have to release their eight easements on the property.

While normally the city would get market value from a developer for giving up those easements — an estimated $920,000 — city staff are proposing waiving that policy to make the project happen.

Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, in a comment appended to the report, wrote that while she supported the brownfield grant, she couldn’t support waiving the encroachment fee, calling it “premature.”

“As this application is still under negotiation I believe it would be more prudent to measure the total monetary value to be waived against measurable features of the proposed development in its final form as ultimately presented to committee and council,” she wrote.

McKenney said such features would include affordable housing and contributions to active transportation networks like cycling and walking paths.

The development is not the only project being considered for a grant at next week’s committee meeting.

City staff are also proposing a grant of up to $2,320,420 over a maximum of 10 years to Colonnade Development Inc. to build a hotel near the Department of National Defence headquarters.

That grant, for the property at 300 Moodie Dr., would come from the Bells Corners Community Improvement Plan, which aims to encourage development in the area.

It would provide what would amount to a 75 per cent property tax break after the property is developed. If the development doesn’t happen, no grant would be paid.

Colonnade is proposing a restaurant with a drive-thru and a six-storey, 124-room hotel. Right now, the site is home to a Salvation Army thrift store, an automotive repair garage and auto parts distributor.

The finance and economic development committee will consider both proposals.

One Proposal for Development of 900 Albert Street, Ottawa