VANCOUVER -- As residents of Vancouver brace for what could be highest property tax hike in a decade, developers continue to benefit by turning vacant land into community gardens, saving a considerable amount on their tax bills.

The gardens are “not all created equal,” said Pete Fry, a Vancouver city councillor. “Some of them are fantastic. Some of them are of dubious merit. And I think that’s one of the challenges.”

Fry introduced a motion in June, which council passed unanimously, requesting that city staff look into how the city could be more involved in how community gardens are built and permitted.

“We have effectively turned a blind eye and allowed developers to do what they want with the land,” Fry said.

One such garden lies on the West Side, along Dunbar Street at West 28th Avenue. 

It’s the former home of a row of independently-owned businesses, including Handi Grill Indian Restaurant, Mexicali Restaurant, and Sushi Inn, which have since been demolished.

The developer, Qualex Landmark Ltd., was granted development and building permits for a five-storey, mixed-use building called the Legacy in September, and is set to break ground in early 2020.

Jordan Beach, vice president of sales and marketing for Qualex, told CTV News the company decided to create the garden for the neighbourhood, rather than maintain a vacant lot, currently valued at over $21 million. 

Records show the property was reclassified under provincial regulations from commercial to recreational on October 31, and an estimate from the City of Vancouver showed Qualex would save $93,012 in taxes in 2020 because of the change.

When CTV News asked Beach if property tax savings may have played a role in choosing to go green, he acknowledged while there may be some savings, “taxes were not the sole driver for the temporary garden decision.”

It turns out there are 29 such parks and gardens across the City of Vancouver.  

Some are former gas stations that can’t be built on for a number of years. But together, as recreational-classified community gardens, they represent a $2,880,000 tax savings for their owners in 2019, compared to how they would be taxed if they were classified as commercial.

Paul Sullivan is a property tax expert with Burgess Cawley Sullivan & Associates who has advised Qualex. He told CTV News given rising development costs and new taxes, “it’s incumbent on developers to work within the legislation to try to curb these expenses … and keep prices down.”

Sullivan said it’s rare that a developer would game the system, what Fry referred to as “land banking,” when land owners wait to sell a piece of land at a much higher price.

“Just about every example I can think of is waiting for off-gassing through the remediation process, or waiting for a permit,” Sullivan said, adding that when the developer saves money, that in turns reduces the cost of homes.

Vancouver Coun. Rebecca Bligh agreed that more needs to be done to speed up any “unnecessary delays” with the permitting process, and thus reduce the amount of land sitting vacant. 

“Delays to permitting are within our control,” she said.  “We are looking at ways to balance the impact of taxes, so while we are looking at the budget, this is a great time to consider all options.”

When CTV News visited the Dunbar garden, we saw dozens of planters had vegetables or herbs growing in them, and one person tending to her plot on a sunny December afternoon. 

And while Fry acknowledged some gardens benefit their communities greatly, he said he’s seen others that have been behind fences and locked gates.

While he wasn’t pointing specifically to the Dunbar garden, which has a billboard advertising the Legacy project looming overhead, he also expressed concern that the marketing billboards alongside the blossoms could be crossing the line.

“They’re sort of double dipping and it’s becoming a commercial venture,” Fry said.  “And I think that’s part of the unfair factor.”

Fry said he expects an update from city staff on his motion within the next couple of months and he expects council to take some form of action, potentially in the form of a new bylaw.

“We’d just like to have a bit more say,” he said.