B.C. land trusts healthy, despite TLC creditor woes

The Land Conservancy, a high-profile land trust saddled with $7.5 million in debt and under creditor protection, is an exception to the rule

The Land Conservancy, a high-profile land trust saddled with $7.5 million in debt and under creditor protection, is an exception to the rule, according to a survey of land trusts across B.C.

TLC, in its aggressive drive to preserve properties under threat of development, is the only land trust in B.C. to have taken on mortgages, often without a clear and sustainable revenue stream for paying debt or for long-term monitoring and maintenance.

Paul McNair, executive director of the Land Trust Alliance of B.C., compiled an economic snapshot of land trusts in the wake of TLC’s financial woes, and found none hold mortgages and only two carry debt – $1,500 and $15,000 respectively. Together, the 31 land trusts own 700 properties covering 1.4 million acres in B.C.

“Across the board for our membership there was no debt, except for two,” said McNair, who is based in Victoria. “They campaign (to raise money) and pay outright. They are in really good shape.”

McNair’s survey indicated B.C.’s land trusts either have stable or increasing funding, and have endowments worth an aggregate $15 million. A key part of land conservation is having a fund for monitoring and maintenance of conservation land in perpetuity.

TLC holds covenants on 250 properties and purchased 50 through donations and grants. Court documents say it assumed debt in anticipation of donations and endowments that failed to materialize, and that over the decades it built up a portfolio of properties with little or no funding for ongoing monitoring. By 2009, it had monthly expenses of $300,000, with only $100,000 coming in from memberships and donations.

“(TLC) has a completely different model than other land trusts,’ McNair said. “I’m not saying theirs is better or worse, but it has risk … other land trusts purchase outright so there is no debt on the land.”

Habitat Acquisition Trust, for one, holds joint covenants with TLC on nearly 4,000 acres in Greater Victoria, and draws from an endowment fund to help maintain its obligation to monitor lands under protection. HAT executive director Adam Taylor said with TLC grappling with insolvency, his staff can fill the gap.

“Fortunately we’ve got the capacity to do that,” Taylor said. “It’s a lot of work and planning to uphold the agreements.”

Taylor said donations for HAT remain steady, but donors do have questions about giving money and the permanency of land held in trust, while TLC is obliged to explore selling properties to repay creditors.

“For us, it’s about getting the message out that we’re not engaged in the same kind of financial transactions as the TLC,” Taylor said. “We have no debt and we’re not in a position to sell off properties.

“For HAT, if donations dried up or if we lost our grants, we wouldn’t be talking about getting rid of land. There’s nothing forcing us to get rid of properties we’re trying to protect.”

editor@saanichnews.com