Serendipity – the occurrence of events, by chance, in a beneficial way.
It’s true that serendipity played a role in the history of the purchase and protection of St. John Point, and it all started about nine years ago this month. Let me explain.
In 2013 and 2014, after some revisions to our Constitution, the Conservancy launched an internal program to align itself both in terms of policy and procedures, but also in terms of certifications, to be able to exercise its desire to acquire lands for conservation. This included outright purchase as well as creating, holding, and monitoring conservation covenants. In this period, we were certified as eligible to hold covenants by the provincial government. The next step for the Conservancy was to receive eligibility from the federal government to create and receive Ecological Gifts of lands*. We received that certification in December of 2015.
Here comes the first instance of serendipity: On December 22, 2015, as Executive Director of the Conservancy, I received an unsolicited call from an organization called the American Friends of Canadian Land Trusts. The American Friends were looking for a Canadian conservation partner to assist with the possible purchase of a property on Mayne Island owned by Americans. From this conversation, the initial details of how this purchase could happen, the price at that time, and what the Conservancy’s role could be, were identified. The Conservancy Board was briefed and unanimously agreed to pursue the process to purchase St. John Point in January 2016.
So, we began our first foray into purchasing land for conservation, and it proved to be an amazingly complex affair.
In early 2016, the Conservancy and American Friends negotiated an agreement on how they would work together, share costs and fundraising, and develop the purchase process. The complexity of this purchase was first, that it had three owners – one Canadian and two American, all brothers, and that the final outcome was to be a single Canadian conservation owner.
The second instance of serendipity was the fact that one of American owners lived in Washington State, where the offices of the American Friends were also located. This allowed for much more simple communications and negotiations with this brother as we moved forward. It also meant that the American Friends could have face to face meetings with this brother, who became the spokesman for the family. This brother was also interested in a conservation sale of the property and was able to lobby his brothers to do the same. As a result, the parties were able to agree on a Letter of Intent in October 2016 which included agreement on a conservation sale price tag ($3.6 million cash) plus 20% of the fair market value ($4.5 million) as a donation ($900,000).
The Conservancy committed to raising $2 million towards the final purchase by December 15, 2017. The remaining funds would be provided by foundations and government sources. So the campaign was designed to raise the funds (campaign target $4 million) for the purchase and to cover down payment, legal fees, surveys, non-resident taxes and the creation of endowments to manage the property in perpetuity.
Needless to say for the Conservancy, raising $2 million in just slightly more than a year was very daunting, from a fundraising perspective. The third instance of serendipity was that while the fundraising campaign was in the planning stages, private donors came forward and pledged $1.2 million toward the purchase costs. As a result, the Conservancy was able to launch the St. John Point campaign in early December, 2016 with 60% of the goal already pledged.
The agreed outcome for this purchase was that both the Conservancy and the American Friends would first hold title (one third and two thirds interest respectively) and then would transfer title to a single Canadian conservation organization as owner. A conservation covenant would be registered on title in favour of the Conservancy and an Ecological Gift would be certified and held by the owner. As a result, key large conservation organizations and government parks agencies were canvassed for interest in owning this property.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada came forward with interest in St. John point, and mentioned that they were preparing to reply to a request for proposals from a foundation to identify candidate Canadian coastal properties that could be purchased for conservation. The Conservancy assisted in creating the proposal to the foundation. In the meantime, an appraisal for establishing fair market value was done for the Ecological Gifts Program in January, 2017. The Conservancy also did a Baseline Documentation Report needed to establish ecological significance for the Ecological Gift certification (this was completed July, 2017).
The fourth serendipitous instance occurred during the completion of the Ecological Gift certification. The Canadian brother’s one third share was the subject of the ecological gift, and because he lived in Quebec, the Mayne Island Conservancy had to be approved as a registered charity in that province in order to issue a tax receipt. The serendipity here was that the American Friends had just done work on this same issue and had a used a legal firm in Ottawa do the formal application to the Quebec government. The Conservancy retained the same firm, and in April 2017 it was officially registered as an eligible charity in the Province of Quebec.
Backing up a bit, in around February 2017, the joint application from the Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to the foundation was not accepted, which meant they could not act as the owner of the property. As well, our interactions with both the federal and provincial park agencies were not successful. However, the Capital Regional District (CRD) expressed interest in the St. John Point property, as they had a long-standing interest in increasing regional park space on Mayne Island. The issue for them was that their dedicated park acquisition fund was fully subscribed with pending purchases of park lands elsewhere in the region. Nonetheless, the regional parks agency was willing to pursue their interest in a coming year.
So in early 2017, we had a significant shortfall in the funds that were planned to come from foundation and government sources for the purchase, and no single partner to take on the ownership. At the end of August 2017, we were required to meet all the conditions and move to a purchase and sale agreement, which meant a commitment to purchase the property and the placing of a non-refundable deposit. At the same time, the Conservancy had reached its fundraising goal of $2 million (in fact surpassed the goal to $2.3 million), and the property was certified as an Ecological Gift. The Conservancy and the American Friends signed a purchase and sale agreement with the three brothers.
Continuing to pursue the goal of a single conservation owner, the parties worked through September with the CRD parks staff to place the St. John Point purchase before their management, and ultimately the Regional Parks Committee. We also proposed a contribution from the regional parks of at least $2 million to match what had been raised by the Conservancy.
Finally, during the month of September, the fifth and most significant case of serendipity for the success of St. John Point happened. Negotiations on one of the purchase projects on the regional parks list for 2017 stalled, so that completion that year was not possible. Our work with the parks staff had by that time progressed far enough that an application could be made to place the St. John Point purchase on the 2017 priority list as a replacement . The regional parks committee approved this recommendation, and further recommended that the Regional District Board approve funds toward the purchase of St. John Point for a new regional park property. In October 2017, the Regional District Board approved taking on St. John Point as a regional park property for 2017, and additionally approved contribution just over $2 million dollars towards its purchase. With this approval, we could close on the purchase before the end of December deadline.
Through November we signed a purchase agreement with the CRD, negotiated a covenant to be placed on most of the property in favour of the Conservancy, and had the certified Ecological Gift letter and fair market value determination. All the transactions, funds and supporting documents (33 of them) had to be completed and approved by December 15, 2017. All interests of the three brothers then needed to be transferred and registered to the Conservancy and the American Friends, who in turn would transfer all these interests as well as the Ecological Gift and the covenant on title to the CRD Parks department by December 31, 2017. The St. John Point property was now owned and protected for conservation.
The St. John Point campaign success also allowed the Conservancy to create its covenant management and covenant defense funds, as well as replenish our Conservation, Acquisition, Management and Stewardship (CAMAS) fund to be used for future conservation purchases (think Edith Point).
The acquisition of St. John Point was a remarkable accomplishment by many dedicated people, and a great example of how serendipity can play a role in such a positive outcome.
*Learn more about the federal government’s Ecological Gifts Program.