'For Sale' Signs in the Forest

They still cut down trees and plan to stay in the coastal forest industry, but TimberWest Forest Corp. is looking for revenue in real estate as well.

Right on its website’s homepage, in the very first sentence, amidst photos of logs and sawmills and loggers, TimberWest now emphasizes its position as “Western Canada’s largest private land management company.”

TimberWest is signalling that its business model has incorporated a new centre of potential big profits, and not from lumber and wood chips. It has reorganized its lands department and given it a new name, Couverdon.

You may not see the name on many for sale signs yet, but it definitely has a big new profile as a major real estate player on Vancouver Island. It is a wholly owned division of TimberWest and the new name — from the original Dutch town, Coeverden, that gave its name to the family of explorer Captain George Vancouver and the city and the Island — re-brands TimberWest’s real estate activities.

The huge tracts of property, totalling more than 300,000 hectares, constitute the old E&N land grant, parts of Vancouver Island given outright to Robert Dunsmuir when he built the railway. It has passed through a number of owners since 1886. Some of it grew the biggest and best trees ever logged on the Island. Now TimberWest has flagged about 54,000 hectares to sell rather than log, about 17 per cent of its total lands on Vancouver Island.

{advertisement}An indication of the scale of Couverdon’s holdings: take Bear Mountain, the biggest real estate development in the Victoria area at about 1,500 hectares. That’s less than three per cent of Couverdon’s total holdings of real estate for sale.

Couverdon has 32 properties for sale, all the way from Port Renfrew and the southern Malahat north to Quatsino Sound and Telegraph Cove. So far, there have been no sales.

A year ago, TimberWest offered Capes Lake for sale: several lakes, 100-metre waterfall, alpine meadows, and forestland about 30 kilometres west of Comox beside Strathcona Park. The price for the isolated 5,740-hectare site? A round $25 million. Access is by floatplane; there are no roads. This “kingdom property,” in TimberWest’s description, is still for sale.

Closer to civilization, Couverdon is hoping to sell parcels adjacent to Campbell River airport and other lands in the Comox Valley, the Nanaimo Lakes area, and near Ladysmith. It has property by Skutz Falls on the Cowichan River and at Honeymoon Bay, and its timberlands also touch the bottom of the Island near Jordan River. Couverdon says, “these lands will progressively be made available for higher uses over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Not all of the land earmarked for sale is in prime development areas like Langford, but given the sheer amount of land in the portfolio, Couverdon is going to be influencing future growth in a number of Vancouver Island communities.

The company’s community-friendly stance is that Couverdon “is committed to managing these lands in a way that helps meet the changing needs of communities on Vancouver Island.”

People with experience of Western Forest Products’ rush to sell off lands around Jordan River, in defiance of the Capital Regional District’s attempts to control urbanization out west, might be a little skeptical.

“There’s always a quid pro quo,” says Vicky Husband, veteran of a number of fights with forest companies and developers. “At least they’re consulting.”

She’s encouraged by the comment from Bob Rennie, the successful condo marketer from Vancouver who’s been hired to advise Couverdon on sales strategies, that Bear Mountain is not the model for the new enterprise. Rennie, who offered advice on the Woodward’s redevelopment in downtown Vancouver, said Couverdon is in listening mode. He says “We’re going to roll up our sleeves, get together with mayors and councils … get all the stakeholders in a room.”

“Some people are going to make us pull up our socks. We’re going to make sure people pull up their socks.” Rennie calls this “the biggest challenge of my life.”

There are many types of land in the Couverdon portfolio, some suited for one-acre lots, some possibly for farming, manufactured-home parks, other sites for recreational development, and for parkland. “We’ve got to be diverse about it. We’ve got to listen to the market,” says Rennie. But TimberWest’s Couverdon project definitely doesn’t mean creating big satellite towns with giant condos in the middle of the Island, he says.

Some sales are pending, says Stephen Bruyneel, director of communications at TimberWest. “We want to understand what the community wants to do,” says Bruyneel.

Is it the end of logging for TimberWest? Bruyneel says the forest company launched the process of picking out real estate to sell rather than log about three years ago but is taking its time. It has listened to 1,000 people at a series of community meetings.

More than 80 per cent of TimberWest’s land on the Island will remain forestland, the company says.

At Lake Cowichan, the community would like some breathing space from Couverdon, which is actively selling some big parcels of land, although the zoning hasn’t changed from forest uses. It’s had for sale signs since early in the year at five sites around the lake, and the prices appear to reflect forest uses, not development sites. For example, you can buy 78.6 acres at the old Gordon River logging camp for $475,000, which is barely enough for a single-family house in Victoria.