A burst of massive mansions recently built on farmland in Richmond should be a subject of investigation for the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, says Laura Gillanders, an advocate for farmland preservation.
“We’ve always suspected money laundering has played a big role in the mansions on farmland, and the estates, and the illegal reported activity that goes on there. We know it’s certainly not local income or local farming income,” said Gillanders, a member of Richmond Farmwatch who plans to attend one of five upcoming province-wide public meetings to air her grievances.
The meetings will be held starting Wednesday, October 23 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver ballroom at 5.30pm. Anyone may pre-register to present their concerns and observations to the commission’s counsel. Over the next few weeks, meeings will also be held in Kelowna, Victoria, Richmond and Prince George. (Details at CullenCommission.ca/public-meetings-information).
“Our commission is a public inquiry called for the benefit of all British Columbians,” said co-senior commission lead counsel Patrick McGowan, who will lead the orderly conduct of the commission alongside lawyer Brock Martland, QC.
“The commissioner very much wants to hear from members of the community and have them share their views and thoughts on the problem that we’re facing and areas they would like to see the commission address,” said McGowan, whose primary responsibility is to represent the public interest.
Gillanders plans to present in Richmond at the November 7 meeting. She contends the public interest has been harmed by farmland speculation. But she concedes her grassroots group has had difficulty pinpointing the precise nature of skyrocketing land prices.
Richmond farmland prices soared between 2015 and 2018 as land purchasers utilized a gap in the City of Richmond’s bylaws, which until this year set no practical limit to house sizes.
For instance, a 26.6-acre lot at 11400 No. 2 Road owned by a shell company had a 2018 assessed value of $88,000, which soared to $8.3 million with a permit to build a large home.
House permits on protected farmland went from 10 in 2014 to as high as 43 in 2018. One proposed 41,000-square-foot home was denied by planning staff in July 2016 for being a de-facto hotel.
“We would really like to see this investigated further. To know our protected farmland is not a place for illegal activity or drug money and money laundering,” said Gillanders.
Mansions have been built and flipped, left unoccupied or, worse, been the scene of criminal activity, said Gillanders. Also, there are instances where landowners are granted building permits, house construction is started and then it’s abandoned.
“Sometimes these places take years to build. Whoever is building them runs out of money,” she said.
The commission has a mandate to look at acts or omissions of regulatory authorities or individuals with power in the real estate sector to determine whether those acts or omissions have amounted to corruption.
McGowan said commissioner Justice Austin Cullen has the power to compel municipal politicians and employees to testify.
“We have the power to compel witnesses and have them come and testify under oath. It’s my hope that most individuals or entities will be responsive to a simple request to come before the commission,” said McGowan.
To date, there are some examples of alleged money laundering in farmland real estate, coinciding with a flood of money from China into real estate. Experts such as Transparency International cite the phenomenon as the “Vancouver Model,” where proceeds of international crime (including the China-based fentanyl trade) wash through local real estate.
A civil forfeiture action filed June 29, 2017 in B.C. Supreme Court alleges a Richmond ALR property, at 8880 Sidaway Road, “is an instrument and proceeds of unlawful activity,” and “has been used to engage in crimes,” including “laundering the proceeds of unlawful activity.”
It was in December 2015 that the B.C. Lottery Corp. was informed the mansion was operating as an illegal casino, the B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office claim alleges. A year later RCMP responded to the house to investigate a reported hostage incident at gunpoint.