Feds (again) pay millions to B.C. developers over unexploded mines

Debate begins today on a new bill aimed at tackling workplace harassment, days after stunning allegations of misconduct sent Ottawa reeling.
Debate begins today on a new bill aimed at tackling workplace harassment, days after stunning allegations of misconduct sent Ottawa reeling. Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

The federal government has quietly paid millions — for the second time — to a B.C. real estate group that sued after learning lakeside property it bought from the government to turn into a subdivision contained unexploded bombs from a former military training camp.

According to public account documents, which were tabled this fall and detail federal spending, the government paid $4.4 million to K & L Land Partnership for “compensation in environmental damages,” which comes just one year after it reached a legal settlement with the group for $11 million to avoid going to trial over claims it was negligent in failing to warn the developers about unexploded bombs left over from a Second World War training camp based on their land.

READ MORE: Disposal of ordnance ‘possible’ cause of destructive fire in eastern Alberta: military

However, federal officials are not saying why K & L Land Partnership received a second payout.

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“Unfortunately, a confidentiality agreement prevents us from sharing the details of the settlement between the Crown and K&L Land Partnership,” said Dominique Tessier, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence. “What I can tell you is that the property in question was set aside as a range and training area during the Second World War. Although we (DND) occupied the site beginning in July 1941, the site was not used extensively.”

It all started back in 2005 with the formation of an entity — K & L Land Partnership — made up of 11 numbered companies owned by several stakeholders including the Aquilini family, which controls one of the province’s biggest developers through their Aquilini Investment Group and also owns the Vancouver Canucks.

K & L Land Partnership then spent $15 million to buy 1,349 acres of undeveloped land overlooking Lake Kalamalka near Vernon, B.C.

Court documents filed in 2013 state the point of the purchase was to “develop a residential subdivision, with appropriate amenities, for sale to members of the public.”

Those plans hit a snag in 2007 when the Department of National Defence sent a letter informing K & L Land Partnership that there had been incidents of unexploded ordnance in the Vernon area in the past but it was not until 2011, according to those court documents, that officials informed the partnership that the risk specifically applied to the land they had bought.

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In 2013, K & L Land Partnership filed a lawsuit at the B.C. Supreme Court claiming damages for “economic loss in negligence, trespass and nuisance,” warned that the government “had a duty to warn them of the risk or danger due to the possible presence of UXO [unexploded ordnance] on the Lands,” and said they would not have bought the land if it had known about the risk posed by the unexploded bombs.

A trial was set for 2015 but the case was settled out of court and a confidentiality agreement imposed toward the end of that year.

News of an $11-million settlement was leaked to reporters in January 2016, including an agreement that the Department of National Defence would clear out the mines from the land in question.

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That work is ongoing.

“Cleanup is underway and has been underway for some time,” said Howard Shapray, a B.C. lawyer who represented K & L Land Partnership in the civil suit.

READ MORE: Okanagan Indian Band pushes for action on UXO

Local media reports indicate the group intends to build 54 single-family homes on the land once cleanup is completed and its zoning application with the City of Vernon is approved.

Starting in 1941, the military operated a training camp in Vernon where soldiers heading off to fight in the Second World War conducted activities using explosives such as grenades, mortars and tank and anti-tank rounds.

The camp converted into a training facility for cadets in 1949 and continues to operate as such today.

While court documents say defence officials did sweep the land afterward, there have been several cases of injuries and deaths related to the ordinance.

The last death occurred in 1973.

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