The issue of selling Department of National Defence land is not as simple as suggested by Saturday's editorial ("DND lands hold great potential," Nov. 3).
The land described in the editorial belongs to the government of Canada and is managed by DND. This distinction is important in that surplus land is managed by the Canada Land Company, a Crown corporation that manages the disposal of surplus federal land.
The process includes a priority system. It is first offered to other federal departments, then to the provincial government and then to local government. If they decline, it is then offered for sale. All money that accrues goes to the central government coffers and does not go to DND.
The editorial uses land-size comparisons as an argument for DND to declare some of the land surplus and use it instead for development. Logically, any land inside the borders of Esquimalt cannot be the size of Oak Bay as one might be led to believe from the editorial. In Esquimalt, the dockyard and Naden areas are the main working areas for the Navy, but this forms only a small part of the land holdings of the base.
DND manages a rifle range in Saanich in a very rural area. No one would want to build a house that is 200 metres from an active range, so declaring that land surplus is not an option.
The largest parcel of land (about 6,200 acres) that is managed in the local area is in Metchosin at Rocky Point. It houses an ammunition depot. While there is potential for declaring some of the surrounding land surplus, the District of Metchosin is unlikely to subdivide into parcels smaller than 10 acres.
Albert Head (also in Metchosin) houses some specific units that need to be separate from the main complex in Esquimalt. Most of the Mary Hill property, adjacent to William Head Institution (also in Metchosin) was considered as surplus a few years ago but was reconsidered when use of the land for training increased in the wake of 9/11.
It is an oversimplification to look at the land in Esquimalt and say that a better use for the land might be to sell it and develop it privately. The long-term plan for the real-estate management of this portfolio needs to take into account myriad factors, none of which includes the preference of local political activists, social engineers, local or provincial officials/politicians or members of the public.
While the base might or might not have identified a use for a particular piece of property at this time, it is certain that it could be part of the long-term plan. For example, did anyone notice the pistol range adjacent to the Capital Regional District primary sewage-treatment plant at MacAulay Point before agitating for it to be a site for the secondary treatment plant?
While low-cost housing is one of the flavours of the day in local politics, and while a casual observer might actually believe that the federal land in Esquimalt might be used for this purpose as suggested in the editorial, the reality is much different. What happens in two years when a new slate of local politicians is elected? Will low-cost housing remain a high priority, or will it be replaced by the next big thing with new ideas on how land owned by someone else might be used?
The federal government, by continuing to own and manage the land, ensures that its use conforms to federal mandates and is not subject to the ever-changing whims of those aspiring to local office.
The editorial also notes that federal land could be used in treaty negotiations with First Nations. The federal government is already years ahead of the editorial on this point and uses its holdings as part of the negotiation process all across Canada, not just locally.
The federal government is always reluctant to get rid of real-estate holdings while there is a current or forecasted need for it. On the other hand, it has always been eager to reduce its holdings when deemed no longer necessary; one only has to look at the decision of a previous Liberal government to reduce the number of military bases across Canada to know that.
Getting rid of an acre here or there because of a perceived local need is not in the interests of the government of Canada and should not be seen as a solution to a local problem (such as sewage-station location or low-cost housing options). There are many easier and faster solutions than to look askance at the federal lands simply because some of it happens to be within sight of the local populace.
Retired major Stephen Sawyer was base operations officer at CFB Esquimalt from 2003 to 2010.
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