Land Conservancy faces urgent $1-million gap

Board chairman seeks solution to immediate debt obligations

The Land Conservancy says it needs to find $1 million immediately if it is to meet its financial obligations.

The money is needed to pay off short-term debt, including interest on privately held mortgages and severance payments to laid-off staff.

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Board chairman Alastair Craighead said he is confident solutions can be found, allowing the organization and its more than 50 protected heritage and wilderness properties to survive.

"I would say the situation is serious, but not desperate. I am not feeling despair because so many people of goodwill are coming together," Craighead said.

"It's not so much about the future of TLC, it's about the future of the land trust movement in B.C., because other organizations face challenges, too," he said.

TLC properties on Vancouver Island include Sooke Potholes, Abkhazi Gardens, Wildwood, Keating Farm Estate and Ross Bay Villa.

An appeal to members says directors are providing financial information before the Nov. 3 annual meeting because of the urgency.

"The Land Conservancy of B.C. is roughly $1 million in arrears for critical, short-term payables that must be addressed immediately," the statement says.

"The directors have, or are, negotiating agreements with Canada Revenue Agency, creditors and employees on repayment arrangements, but we have to raise the funds to meet our commitments."

One of the biggest problems facing TLC is its heavy use of mortgages to buy properties - a tactic not used by most land trust organizations.

"It was a method that [founder and former executive director] Bill Turner used, that the current board is not in favour of continuing, but we have it to deal with," Craighead said.

One resolution going to the annual meeting will add a clause that protected properties "shall not be mortgaged under any circumstances or sold, unless the society is being dissolved, and then may be sold only to another society having similar purposes."

Another clause allows for protected properties to be transferred to similar organizations, with a conservation covenant intact.

"We want to have an option to transfer a property to another interested organization that may be more active in that area or to a local group," Craighead said.

"If we can make some of these holdings more self-sufficient, it makes more sense rather than a centrist-control strategy that requires way too much staff and way too much resources that we can't afford and couldn't afford in the past. That's one of the reasons we have so much debt," he said.

Staff numbers have been reduced from about 50 three years ago to 10 fulltime equivalents today, with at least four more positions still to go. One of the latest departures was interim executive director Kathleen Sheppard; TLC is now being led by financial officer Margaret Halsey.

To cut costs, the organization moved from Esquimalt to space in Gonzales Observatory, but operating expenses this fiscal year still exceeded revenue by about $190,000, even with an interest-free, potentially forgivable loan and a property sale.

Operating costs have been reduced to $100,000 a month from $300,000, but laying off staff is expensive and the board knew this would be a difficult time, Craighead said.

Detailed financial statements will be released at the meeting. A financial summary shows memberships and donations for the fiscal year 2011-12 fell to $1.7 million from $3.8-million the previous year.

Those figures are somewhat skewed as last year's donations included the campaign to buy Madrona Farm, Craighead said.

"Now there are no plans for new acquisitions in the immediate future."

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