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City, school board agree to major land swap

What started as a confusing discussion over whether the city or school board owned a parcel of land known as Pioneer Forest has turned into a major land swap between the two parties.

City and school board officials announced Tuesday that eight properties will be included in a letter of intent to transfer various land titles between them to ensure the public benefits from improved usage for all properties involved.

In the summer, north end citizens became concerned when the school board made a request to the city to redesignate Pioneer Forest as 'neighbourhood' instead of 'parks and open space,' a move that could have potentially paved the way for development of the 3.2-hectare forest.

Friends of Pioneer Forest, a community group that formed in response to the threat to the forest, found evidence that the park was wrongly relieved of its park designation in 1997 when the city sold the parcel to the school board for $800,000. It challenged the city and school board in an effort to provide long-term protection for what it considered a park.

In Tuesday's announcement, Pioneer Park was one of four properties the school board intends to transfer to the city. The other three include Harewood Field at 502 Howard Ave., to ensure that the play field remains as a public use space in the Harewood community; six hectares of property off Oliver Road (5101 Rutherford Rd.) deemed most suitable for parkland with 2.4 hectares being retained by the school district for possible future development; and Northfield School, an area where the city intends to improve road access.

Land the city intends to transfer to the school district includes Quennel Square at Selby and Franklyn streets, which is currently occupied by school district buildings but is owned by the city. The school district says it will be able to use the property for an educational services building in the future. Also going to the school district is Princess Royal, Pauline Haarer and Bayview schools, all of which sit on land owned by the city.

According to both the city and school district, land best suited for parks will be transferred to the city while the school district will acquire properties that it can use for future planning. Both parties say the agreement also cleans up some historic land title complications where the city owns property on which the school district has buildings.

"Today's announcement is a fine example of how two organizations, working closely together, can achieve favourable outcomes that supports the goals of each organization's strategic plan," said Coun. Bill Bestwick. "The new lands that the City of Nanaimo has acquired from School District 68 will allow us to explore park creation and development opportunities that were previously unavailable."

In a released statement, Friends of Pioneer Forest says it applauds the move to preserve Pioneer Forest as a park, but cautions the city taking ownership of the property is only the first step.

The group says it will continue to to work toward restoring the improperly removed park restriction and reverter on the property as required by the province's Order in Council 1035/1983, and that it wants the city to dedicate Pioneer Forest as a park under a bylaw that requires a public referendum prior to removal.

"If both of those are done then the Pioneer Forest property will be protected in the same manner as the sports fields at May Richards Bennett Pioneer Park and all of our requirements will have been met," said Dominic Jones, Friends of Pioneer spokesman.

The next step beyond the Letter of Intent, according to Bill Corsan, the city's real estate manager, is to develop a land-exchange agreement, which will provide the legal documentation for the planned exchanges. A target date for Jan. 31 has been established for that document.

While the school board has to have the swap signed off by the Minister of Education, the city has far more detailed work to do, said Corsan, adding that similar land swaps are common in other municipalities, though not necessarily on this scale.

"This appears to be a first for Nanaimo, but it really cleans up a lot of land ownership issues that have built up," said Corsan.

School board chairman Jamie Brennan said the deal is an example of how both the school board and city are working together in the best interests of the community.

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