Real Estate boom rolls north

🕔Dec 04, 2006

Those who already have their five acres of wilderness in the North may be unprepared for the change that’s on the way. Real estate sales across the province are up, up, up, and the north has not been left out.

Although places like the Okanagan and the East Kootenays seem to be getting the lion’s share of market pressure, especially from retirement-aged urban-dwelling boomers, areas like Vanderhoof are attracting people from places like Vancouver and Victoria too.

Corine Riemer in Vanderhoof can’t remember when there has been such a buzz about rural properties between Cluculz and Fraser Lakes. A realtor with Re/Max, she has lived in Vanderhoof for each of her 49 years. She loves the place and doesn’t want to live anywhere else herself, but when people from Salmon Arm start calling, suggesting they would like to settle in her sleepy agricultural and forestry-based community, she can’t help but shake her head.

They say they don’t like the heat and the crowds, but she’s not sure they’ll be satisfied with what they find in a town of less than 5,000 whose claim to fame is being in the geographic centre of BC.

But it’s not only BC residents trading places: Riemer has had enquiries from all over the world. “People shop on the Internet,” she says. “They see something that looks cool and they’re willing to pay almost anything for it.”

Look before you buy

With a 20 percent rise in property sales in the area over the last two years, her company has fielded calls from as far away as Asia. People see a pretty picture of a log cabin and have no idea where it really is,” she says. She advises them to come visit before they buy.

Ray and Donna Klingspohn from Victoria took Riemer’s advice. They purchased a log home on Nulki Lake, 20 minutes south of Vanderhoof, subject to viewing the property.
When they made the trip north, what the busy 55-year-old professionals saw nestled in the rolling ranchlands was a serene wetland, a retreat for birds, animals and, now, for them.

Ray describes the feeling he gets after driving up the hill out of Vanderhoof and down the partially paved route to his retirement home: “It’s like going through a curtain, and on the other side you can feel your blood pressure dropping,” he says.

The couple plans to relocate and be fully retired within four years. And yes, after years of coastal living, they are relishing the idea of four seasons—snowplows, snowshoes and outdoor hockey are in their minds.

But a change in lifestyle was not the only factor in the Klingspohns’ big move: their decision was an economic one as well. Victoria was once considered the ideal place to retire, but Ray says a family needs two incomes to get real estate and pay off a mortgage now. And lakefront on Vancouver Island: forget it. In Vanderhoof he could buy his dream home and have money left over to travel. After all, the Prince George airport is only an hour away.

Island retreats

Those who aren’t ready to retire are snapping up vacant lots and second homes in the north too. Rich Osbourne, a realtor who started selling properties on Haida Gwaii in 1971, says the only thing that surprises him about how much interest there is now on the islands is that it took people so long to figure it out.

“When you look at it from the point of view of sand and dunes and beach, there is really nothing on the coast to compare it to,” he says.

When NIHO Land and Cattle Co. put seven oceanfront lots (dubbed Naikoon Estates) on the market in late August, they were priced in a realm locals had never seen before. But four-acre lots fronting the beautiful northern beach went quickly for around $350,000.

NIHO president Rudy Nielsen, a land speculator whose company is the largest private owner of recreational property in British Columbia, says in comparison to the world market, those are bargain prices for waterfront. The whole northern region is undervalued, he says, but it’s heating up.

“It’s the Alberta market that is fueling the recreational properties in that whole area,” he says.

He’s been selling properties from the Robson Valley to Burns Lake to cash-flush Edmontonians. According to a report by Landcor Data Corporation—a company Nielsen also owns—in the first six months of this year, 2219 recreational properties in BC, worth more than $650 million, were sold to oil-rich Albertans. In comparison, people from Ontario—the second-highest out-of-province buyers—purchased 381 properties, and Californians 188. Last year, there were 4,200 second-home or recreational property sales just from Alberta alone, he says.
Nielsen says with the unprecedented rise in personal wealth over the past 10 years, British Columbia is becoming the playground for North America. “People are starting to understand that in one day you can go salmon fishing, skiing and golfing in BC. It is the only province like it,” he says.

Nielsen lives by his company motto: “Don’t wait to buy land. Buy land and wait.” He says to watch the prices, though, because believe it or not, recreational property—especially waterfront—is scarce in BC. 94 percent of the land-base is owned by the Crown; of the other six percent, only a small portion is considered recreational property.

“There are very few prestige properties in BC,” he says.

Trophy properties

But it’s the very idea of second-home buyers stacking deeds to forgotten pieces of wilderness on their mantles that gets some locals spitting mad.

Haida Gwaii‘s Tow Hill Road community has witnessed more and more development expanding along the area’s northern beaches over the past few years. Residents like poet Susan Musgrave say that what pisses most people off about the development at North Beach is that NIHO is marketing the Naikoon Estates as “trophy properties.”

“It’s a most disgusting term,” she says. “It assumes you have many and this is the one you show off.”

Although Musgrave is a second homeowner herself, (her other home is on the Saanich Peninsula), she has lived on Haida Gwaii on-and-off since the 1970s. She says her philosophy is about living with integrity in a community.

Because of earlier subdivisions, most of the access to the beach has been blocked off and property taxes have risen 100 per cent. It seems the opposite of how life has always been lived in the neighbourhood, she says.
The Naikoon Estates brought some other issues to the forefront, like what will happen to the unique moss-covered canopy draping Tow Hill Road, which is within the boundaries of Naikoon Provincial Park.

After a short battle between developer and residents involving a blockade, a lawsuit, some hurried talk, concessions, and a swath of the beloved trees coming down to make way for hydro lines, residents realized they had not done their homework and there was no community plan in place.

Plan ahead

Greg Halseth, a geography professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, says this kind of pressure between developers and locals has taken place across North America.

Having a recreational property is part of the Canadian imagination, he says. Cottage country is part of how Canadians understand the rural landscape and some communities have welcomed the waves of seasonal migrants with open arms. And with more and more baby-boomers looking for a retreat from the urban world, the influx of people to rural areas is not going to go away.

To be prepared for waves of development, he says communities need to sort out what sort of private properties are available for subdivision and what the local zoning laws are.
Secondly, small communities should talk about their vision for the future. “You need a sense of what you are willing to accept, so the community can speak with a clear voice.”

Some regional districts have done a lot of work to ensure the influx of development happens in a way that communities are prepared for. Finlay Sinclair , with the Fraser-Fort George Regional District—encompassing the Robson Valley, Prince George area and north to Mackenzie—oversaw the zoning amendments that took place in the Valemount area for the Canoe Mountain resort development. “Make sure the public is consulted early and often,” he says. He advises that public meetings should take place that are above and beyond those required by the planning process. He also says First Nations in the area must be engaged.

NIHO president Rudy Nielsen jumped through the hoops for the local regional district on Haida Gwaii, but didn’t go the extra mile of reaching out to the local community. He says in retrospect he understands how the community feels. Like many, Nielsen is tired of the smog and pollution in the city, so he is building a house himself on one of the North Beach plots. He loves the fact that there are no fast-food restaurants, and, until recently, no cell phones on the islands.

But people who move to their piece of wilderness in the north often want to close the door behind them. Even Nielsen has been horrified to learn that people are dividing earlier subdivisions along the beach into smaller lots.

“I hope to Christ nobody who takes on lots in the [Naikoon Estates] turns around and subdivides them,” he says.

Developments to watch for:

Smithers: The Ski and Ride Smithers master plan was submitted in August and the company is waiting to hear whether it is allowed to develop not only the ski hill but several recreational properties on the mountain as well. Some think the valley will see a big push on real estate if the plan moves ahead.

Kitsault: Rumours abound about contractors actually working in the ghost town on Alice Arm north of the Nass River, but when the new owner, medical engineer Krishnan Suthanthiran, will put lots on the market or let people come and stay in the old mining town is still up in the air.

Fraser Lake: Vanderhoof realtor Corine Riemer says that people have been calling since an article about the beautiful lake and reasonably priced property appeared in an Alberta newspaper. The lake may be a good 10-hour drive from Edmonton, but Prince George is only an hour and a half away.

Valemount: Canoe Mountain Resorts is planning a ski hill and ski-to-the-door recreational properties just outside of the tiny town of Valemount. Their master plan was approved,and the gondola line has been surveyed, but properties are not yet on the market.