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No public access, so no tax break for $7.8M island owned by religious group

The Matsuri Foundation of Canada had sought the exemption for the 12.5-hectare Knapp Island as a “place of public worship.”
Knapp Island is located off the Saanich Peninsula, near Swartz Bay.

A religious group that owns an island just off Swartz Bay has lost its appeal of a decision denying a property-tax exemption on the island’s assessed value of $7.8 million.

The Matsuri Foundation of Canada had sought the exemption from the Property Assessment Board for 12.5-hectare Knapp Island as a “place of public worship.”

In the original decision in March 2023, the board found the exemption did not apply because the foundation had not shown that the public was invited to or had access to the island, and that its primary use was therefore not public worship.

“The board found that to the extent Knapp Island was used for worship, that worship was private, not public,” the appeal judgement released this month said.

The foundation had argued the exemption should be given “on fairness and equity grounds when compared to other similar properties in British Columbia,” the judgment said.

However the judgment said the board had heard from an assessor about 19 other Gulf Island sites that had full or partial tax exemptions but differed because of size, population, and ferry and road access.

The foundation had a tax exemption for its former location on Salt Spring Island, known as the Brightwoods Spiritual Centre, which was mainly used for spiritual activities and ceremonies by Salt Spring residents.

The group relocated in 2022 to Knapp Island, which includes the Shin Mei Spiritual Centre led by Rev. Ann Evans, a Shinto priest affiliated with Japan’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine and the foundation’s founder.

“Here, we offer a sacred space where people can find renewal of spirit and learn Shinto and Buddhist practice,” the centre’s website says, noting the centre has spaces for prayer, meditation and ceremonies, as well as a library of reading materials on spirituality.” There are also forested trails for “walking meditation,” the site says.

It says the island is open to the public, and there is free transportation by water taxi on weekends for a 15-minute trip from Canoe Cove Marina.

The judgment said the island has a private residence, two apartments for guests and a water-treatment facility, and has been a place of private worship for at least 20 years.

A transition to public use is not apparent to someone passing by on the water, and there is a “private harbour” sign at the island’s lone access point, the judgment said.

It also said that improvements made to the residence and other structures should not be tax exempt.

No one from the foundation was available to comment.

Knapp Island is named for Kempster Malcolm Knapp, who was chief naval instructor on HMS Britannia from 1871-75.

The judgment said that Evans’ partner owned the island beginning in the early 2000s, and it was transferred to the foundation in September 2021 as part of estate planning.

The foundation has five trustees, including Andrew and Ann Evans.

The two moved away from the island in 2005 and moved back in early 2021, the judgment said.

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