Whitehorse city council is holding off on the purchase of a property on Seventh Avenue.
Members voted March 30 to refer the purchase back to administration before it is brought back to council for consideration again.
“I see this as a costly endeavour for the city,” Coun. Laura Cabott said.
The deal would see the city purchase 7220 Seventh Ave. for $333,000 and tear down the house with the property then available for public use.
As council members heard in an earlier report, the property was among those that were to be sold under the escarpment land acquisition program in the 1970s.
Under that program, properties near the downtown clay cliffs were sold to the city, through a partnership with the territorial and federal governments, due to the risk of potential mudslides from the cliffs. In some cases, including this one, owners refused to sell and remained on their property. In the years that passed, as owners became willing to sell their properties, the city purchased them. There’s just a few such properties left.
The property most recently belonged to Alphonse Kwiatkowski who passed away in February 2019. Since then, the city has negotiated a sale with the executor of the estate and the land was assessed at fair market value as a residential property, the same way the sale price for other escarpment homes has been determined since the 1970s.
Under city policy, land in the escarpment zone is to be for public use with any buildings on the site to be removed.
Highlighting the costly endeavour (which would also include the added cost of tearing down buildings on the site), Cabott questioned what the value to the city would be in purchasing the property.
Mike Gau, the city’s director of development services, explained land in the escarpment zone is to be used for public space — trails, open space, community gardens and the like.
He said there is a process that could allow for more intensive development provided a number of mitigative measures are put in place and approval given to take it out of the escarpment zone, but that is not something administration is recommending.
The risk of major mudslides from the clay cliffs is not as severe as it was in the 1970s when the acquisition program stated, but there remains some risk.
The program followed an expropriation model in buying out the properties, though there was never a formal expropriation of properties.
After the initial program was underway and most properties sold off, the city continued to use the same method to determine purchase price when buying any of the remaining sites.
Coun. Dan Boyd argued at the March 30 meeting it may be time to look at a new formula for determining the price of the few remaining properties.
Those who chose to remain on their land stayed there with their “eyes open,” knowing their property would eventually be going to the city.
“Forty-plus years has gone by,” he said, going on to note the cost of demolishing buildings on the escarpment properties now is significantly more than it was in the 1970s, given the substantial changes in environmental regulations and processes.
While Gau confirmed city staff could look at potential changes in how the sale price is reached, he added any changes council seeks would require renegotiations with those overseeing the estate.
Along with highlighting concerns about the cost of the purchase and subsequent demolition work, Coun. Samson Hartland voiced his worries over the timing of the purchase, given the uncertainty that lies ahead from the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the purchase isn’t needed to be done immediately, Hartland said he’d like to see it put off for the time being.
Other members of council voiced their agreement in referring the matter back to city staff before voting in favor of the move.
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