PHOTO: Peter Vinall, president and co-founder of Sustane Technologies, says the company can convert solid waste that arrives at a landfill into biofuel, through a process that generates zero emissions. Photo courtesy of The Chronicle Herald
Comox Strathcona regional districts take a step closer to new advanced recycling technologies, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and longer landfill life
Using valuable land to bury our garbage is 17th Century thinking,” according to Charlie Cornfield, a Campbell River member of the Comox Strathcona Waste Management Board’s (CSWM) special committee investigating new technologies.
Cornfield made the comment April 5 in support of a series of motions to move the regional district closer to adopting advanced recycling methods that could extend the life of landfills and turn the community’s waste into sources of energy.
The disposition of household and commercial garbage has become a major problem for municipalities around the world, and B.C.’s coastal areas are not immune.
Powell River and the Cowichan Valley already ship their municipal waste by barge to private landfills in Washington state at exorbitant expense.
The Comox Strathcona region must spend about $28 million every six to seven years to open, operate and close up new landfill sites, a frequency that will escalate when the Campbell River landfill closes in 2023 and its waste is trucked to Pigeon Lake. That’s a cost to taxpayers of more than $300,000 per month.
“We can’t afford it (landfills) anymore,” Cornfield said.
FURTHER READING: Should the north Island bury its garbage, or convert it to energy?
New technologies that employ advanced recycling methods could extend the life of CSWM landfill at Pigeon Lake, near Cumberland by 69 to 160 years, while releasing significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions, according to consultants employed by the regional district.
The CSWM committee voted unanimously this week to invite two technology companies to meet with the board. The two, Sustane Technologies and Waste Treatment Technologies, were the leading contenders from a longer list of responders to a 2017 Request For Information for waste-to-energy technologies.
The committee also voted to ask the Ministry of Environment to explain provincial regulations that appear to restrict when local governments can adopt waste-to-energy solutions.
And the committee also directed staff to monitor the progress of Sustane Technologies first Canadian operation in Nova Scotia and its eight-year-old facility in Spain.
The committee’s actions rejected a recommendation by Chief Administration Officer Russell Dyson to put off further investigation of alternate waste disposal technologies until 2022, when a 10-year update of the solid waste management plan is due.
But there are still outstanding issues.
The 70 percent rule
Ministry of Environment regulations seem to require that local governments achieve a 70 percent diversion rate before getting provincial approval to explore waste-to-energy technologies.
That might mean that 70 percent of all waste arriving at Pigeon Lake from households and commercial sources must be reduced, recycled or reused, but the definitions and details of how the 70 percent figure is calculated are unclear.
The Comox Strathcona operation currently diverts 48 percent of waste, but when the organics composting facility opens next year in Campbell River, that number will jump to nearly 60 percent.
A representative of Morrison Hershfield, a consulting engineering firm hired to assess various new waste disposal technologies, said the ministry’s number “isn’t set in stone.” He said it’s examined on a case-by-case basis.
He said if the regional districts have a plan and is making a good effort toward diverting 70 percent of waste, a move toward newer technologies is likely to get a favorable response from the ministry.
Cornfield believes the 70 percent number was pulled “out of thin air.”
“Where did the 70 percent come from?” Cornfield said. “Our role as a board, as politicians, is to make the case that we’re close enough to move forward.”
Cornfield pointed out that the CSWM operation diverts more than double many other regional districts and that in many countries of the world, such as the U.K., there are no landfills at all.
Buying garbage, he said is a “horrible waste of an asset” that can be reused as energy.
Cost versus greenhouse gases
The Morrison Hershfield consulting study and detailed cost analysis by Comox Valley Regional District staff concluded that “at this time” it is less expensive to continue buying garbage in landfills.
The newer technologies could cost double or triple the amount per tonne spent on landfilling.
The same report, which compared three different WTE technologies, also concluded that if Comox and Strathcona regional districts continue to bury their garbage in the Pigeon Lake landfill, we will produce 821,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) over the next 40-year period.
The worst (highest) CO2e emissions from any of the three reviewed WTE technologies was only 179,000 tonnes.
And one of the technologies would achieve a net reduction of CO2e by -777,000 tonnes. Yes, a minus number, or a positive CO2e impact.
FURTHER READING: WTE discussion missed the GNG point
In other words, by implementing WTE technology, the entire north Island could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste by at least 80 percent, and possibly by roughly 200 percent.
Landfills are North America’s third largest source of methane, which is 25 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Risks of the leading edge
The least expensive and most environment-friendly new technology studied was proposed by Sustane Technologies.
Sustane uses an advanced recycling processes that include production of crude oil from all forms of plastic, which it refines into diesel oil fuel pellets. The company builds a mini-refinery onsite.
The problem is that Sustane’s technology, while lauded by scientists, has not been proven, according to Morrison Hershfield. Their longest-running plant in Spain has not consistently operated at a commercial level over eight years. And the first Canadian facility in Chester, N.S. is not yet operational.
The consultant said Sustane’s technology is interesting and unique, but is still experimental.
“It will mature, but it’s not yet proven,” he said.
FURTHER READING: Garbage bags into fuel
But Cornfield said whether its proven or not doesn’t scare him.
“It takes people willing to take risks, otherwise we’d never develop new technologies,” he said. “We have to break this cycle (of burying garbage in landfills) sometime.”
WTE Committee Chair Rod Nichol, representing Area B, agreed.
“There’s little risk for us,” he said. “If the technology doesn’t work as well as we hoped, we still have the landfill.”
Nichol and Corfield believe that Sustane or WTT would build and operate a plant themselves, and the fees they charge back for processing the region’s waste would be lower than what residents now pay. CVRD staff doesn’t share that belief.
Time to amend the long-term plan
CVRD CAO Dyson said putting off further investigation of new technologies now would give staff time to engage ministries and the public about amending the solid waste management plan, and give WTT or Sustane time to prove their technologies.
The ministry of the Environment approved the CSWM Solid Waste Management Plan in 2013, and an amended plan in 2016 to permit construction of a new engineered landfill at Pigeon Lake that will contain toxic liquids and capture methane gas.
Besides the new landfill at Pigeon Lake, the Solid Waste Management Plan calls for environmentally-mandated closure of all other landfills in the two regional districts; building transfer stations in those communities losing landfills; and, adding a methane burners and an organic composting facility in Campbell River that is scheduled to open next year.
Committee member Roger Kishi of Cumberland said he’s “certain we need to continue down the path to new technologies, but he’s not as certain that the potential companies will cover all the costs of construction and operation.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.
The whole CSWM board must approve the recommended actions by the select committee at its next meeting on April 19.
FURTHER READING: Provincial ban on plastic bags needed
In presentations to the Island Health board of directors, three Comox Valley seniors advocacy groups criticized the recent residential care bed RFP, said Island Health doesn’t provide us with an equitable share of resources and exposed mistreatment of seniors and a new hospital that isn’t clean
Judging by the “surprisingly” large number of Comox Valley citizens who flooded the Crown Isle ballroom March 29 to hear their concerns presented to the Island Health board of directors, there is a widespread belief that the health authority has shortchanged the north Island, especially in health care for seniors.
Five community groups made presentations to the board, which did not speak or respond, except for brief remarks by chair Leah Hollins.
Three of the five presentations bemoaned gaps in health care for seniors, one asked Island Health to give back land it owns in Cumberland and another asked the board to include breathing clean air as a criteria in awarding Community Wellness Grants.
Here is a summary of the three presentations relating to health care.
Comox Valley Elders Take Action
Jennifer Pass, representing more than 70 members of this group, criticized Island Health for how seniors are treated at the Comox Valley Hospital, the cleanliness of the hospital and for its slow response to a critical lack of residential care beds in the region.
Pass recounted the story of an 88-year-old woman, an avid gardener, who experienced serious hand pain and, on the advice of friends, called an ambulance at 7:30 p.m. to take her to the hospital. She waited 14 hours, until 10 a.m. the next morning, before a doctor told her she had arthritis and lectured her on wasting ambulance time for such a trivial matter.
But a second opinion the woman sought later revealed she actually a severe nerve condition relating to her spine. She’s been scheduled for neurosurgery this summer.
Pass also told the board about an 88-year-old woman who experienced a possible Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA — a mini-stroke) and arrived at the emergency department with blood pressure of 185. She was told she “wasn’t a spring chicken anymore” and that she was wasting the ER’s time.
It was later determined by her own doctor that a conflict between two of her drug prescriptions had caused the problem.
These two anecdotes showed that hospital medical staff are “making assumptions about people’s health and diagnoses based on their age … and the elderly are being treated with disrespect,” Pass said, “as if their medical conditions aren’t important.”
Decafnation has received numerous similar reports of mistreatment, which have been reported in a series of articles and as recently as this week.
But Island Health CEO Kathy MacNeil told reporters after the meeting she hasn’t heard of these or similar incidents. That’s surprising from the CEO because people have filed complaints through the official VIHA process.
FURTHER READING: Island Health CEO disappointed by poor treatment of elderly
Pass also commented on the lack of cleanliness in the hospital. During a visit for day surgery, she tried to use one bathroom that had feces on the seat, and other bathrooms that were also filthy.
She was told the dirty bathrooms were a consequence of having so many elderly patients awaiting placement in residential care who were incontinent.
“Seems like the preconditions for a perfect storm,” Pass said.
Pass cleaned one bathroom herself. She also observed beds that hadn’t been cleaned or remade for days.
Sources have told Decafnation that the hospital is generally dirty — dirtier than St. Joseph’s Hospital ever was. They said the uncleanliness is a result of the inefficiencies of public-private partnerships (P3), where housekeeping is contracted out and not as closely managed.
FURTHER READING: Dissecting a a P3 — Part 1
Pass also criticized the recent Request for Proposals to build “up to 120” additional residential care beds that Island Health hopes to open sometime in 2020.
“That’s too long to wait for new beds,” she said.
In response, Island Health board chair Leah Hollins said, “Bad news is good information. It’s good to hear these stories.”
Power of 5
Melanie Olson spoke on behalf a group of five “frustrated” family caregivers who are trying to keep their loved ones who are suffering with dementia at home.
Olson said their group shares the distress of more than one million unpaid, family caregivers in British Columbia, but with the added frustration of accessing too little support services provided by Island Health for the Comox Valley.
She noted that people over age 65 comprise a higher percentage of the Valley’s population than Victoria, and that it’s nearly 50 percent higher than the provincial average. And, that demographic is growing rapidly.
Yet, residential care beds and support services for family caregivers lags most other communities.
The shortage of residential care beds in the Comox Valley, which Olson estimated at a minimum of 160 beds, is only one of the factors plaguing caregivers.
But the experience of trying to get a loved one onto the list for a residential care bed can be long and frustrating. It’s at least a 12-month wait list, and the patient must not only meet the “complex care” requirement, but must also exceed the care that Community Health Services (formally called Home and Community Care) are able to provide.
But the lack of access to Adult Day Care (ADC) programs and respite beds is just as concerning for Olson’s group.
Respite beds give caregivers a chance to take an extended break (up to two weeks) from the 24/7 job of caring for loved ones. There are only three publicly subsidized respite beds in the Valley and one is not secure enough to accept dementia patients.
That leaves two for a large population of caregiving families. Caregivers are entitled to five weeks respite a year, but they don’t get it. Last time one caregiver needed respite, the entire next year was booked by the end of December or early January. A shortage of beds, means caregivers have to schedule respites too far in advance.
There is one private respite bed available at $223 per day, which most families cannot afford.
The situation is similar for ADC programs, where caregivers can take their loved ones for one or more days per week. But multiple times are virtually unavailable to due the area’s large demand. There’s a two-month wait list just to get ADC for one day per week.
Olson told the board she was disappointed the RFP for “up to 120” new residential care beds doesn’t include any requirement for ADC programs or respite beds.
Olson also asked the board for more access to home support services. She said the home support policy is to provide 120 hours, but only provides about 20 hours in the Comox Valley.
She said funding more caregiving training programs and providing practicum opportunities at Comox Valley facilities could help ease caregiver stress, which has reached the breaking point in many cases.
In an August 2017 report, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie said 31 percent of unpaid caregivers were in distress in 2016, the highest in Canada.
Board chair Hollins said in response that “there’s no question we need to put more dollars into the community.”
Seniors Voices Comox Valley
Peggy Stirrett spoke on behalf of a grassroots seniors advocacy group that has collected data from a broad spectrum of community inputs to put a big picture perspective on a local crisis.
Stirrett’s PowerPoint presentation used data to show that the demand for seniors health care and related services has already outstripped local capability and is destined to get worse.
She told the Island Health board that the RFP for “up to 120” new residential care beds does not adequately address the Comox Valley’s demographics or the rate at which the population will grow.
The group’s data suggests there is an urgent need for up to 506 additional residential care beds.
Seniors Voices chart shows the Comox Valley has a higher concentration of seniors
Therefore, building “up to 120” beds by 2020 will neither solve the problem for seniors needing complex care facilities, reduce the distress of family caregivers or diminish the overcapacity problems afflicting the Comox Valley Hospital.
Stirrett said the Comox Valley has a higher concentration of low income households than the provincial average and a higher percentage of them are low income seniors. We also have almost 13 percent more people over the age of 75 than the Greater Victoria area.
But, Stirrett said, “the Comox Valley gets less than its fair share of the resources.”
She plugged data into two different formulas used by the provincial government for calculating a community’s need for residential care beds.
In the first formula, based on 75 beds per 1,000 people aged 75 and over, the Comox Valley should have 525 residential care beds, but has only 374 available.
Calculated as a percent of of the age 75 and over population, the Comox Valley has only 5.4 beds while Victoria, with a lower concentration of over 75 population, has 12.6 beds. The Valley’s ratio is the lowest on Vancouver Island.
“By any calculation we could develop,” Stirrett said, “an equitable allocation could be anywhere between 151 and 506 additional beds … This suggests that 120 additional beds is not enough ….”
She said the group is alarmed by wait times for residential care beds of a year or more and a hospital operating at 138 percent capacity.
“We can only imagine how difficult an experience this is for those seniors who are directly affected … and how much the uncertainty adds to their anxiety,” she said.
Stirrett implored the board to add more residential care beds immediately, even considering using St. Joseph’s capacity as an interim solution.
They also asked Island Health to develop a long-term residential care bed plan for the Valley that addresses the equity issue and takes our unique elderly demographic into consideration.
Finally, Stirrett asked the board to publish information specific to our local area on a regular, timely and transparent basis to help community groups assist seniors with their healthcare needs.
FURTHER READING: Decafnation series on the Comox Valley Hospital; Island Health RFP for residential care beds; The Views considering a bid for more beds
Without public notice, Island Health holds its March board meeting a day early in Victoria, doesn’t address Comox Valley Hospital issues at “public forum” in Courtenay. But seniors health care advocates make passionate pleas for more resources
Those among the several hundred people who packed the Crown Isle Ballroom yesterday (March 29) expecting to attend a meeting of the board of directors of the Vancouver Island Health Authority (Island Health) came away confused.
Those in the standing-room-only audience hoping to hear the Island Health board address well-known problems at the Comox Valley and Campbell River hospitals, and perhaps announce some bold corrective measures, came away disappointed.
Yet, everyone left inspired by five community groups who spoke passionately, and pleaded with the board to serve the Comox Valley more equitably.
FURTHER READING: Pleas for better seniors care, supportive housing and clean air
The confusion arose because Island Health advertised the March 29 event on its website as a regular, official board meeting. It was not.
The board of directors actually met the day before, March 28, in Victoria, without any public notice on its website, probably breaking the government’s own rules on transparency.
Screen shot taken from the Island Health website at 3:53 p.m. March 29
There was no notice by Island Health that the March board meeting would occur at any time other than March 29, or in any other location than Courtenay.
When Decafnation contacted board liaison Louise Carlow via email after the meeting about the lack of public notice, she did not respond. Government workers are off now for the long Easter weekend holiday.
The only director to utter even a sound in Courtenay was board chair Leah Hollins, who opened the meeting by looking over the crowd spilling out into the Crown Isle lobby and saying:
“Fair to say, we weren’t anticipating this many people.”
After all the publicity given to the hospital’s poor planning, overcapacity, long emergency waits, staff shortages and low employee morale, she shouldn’t have been surprised. It would have been surprising if there wasn’t a large turnout.
Concern about the performance of our hospital and how Island Health has underserved the north Island runs that high.
Perhaps the board did fear a large gathering, which might explain why they held their official board meeting the day before in Victoria without any public notice, and did not adhere to their published agenda.
The meeting bypassed the agenda it posted on its website — most notably not allowing any time for questions from the floor — and launched into informative presentations by north Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns, Island Health CEO Kathy MacNeil and five community organizations.
Not once did Hollins or MacNeil discuss problems at the Comox Valley or Campbell River hospitals, except at the tail end of the CEO’s report when she called the issues, which were first raised in a series of articles on Decafnation, as “growing pains.”
All that was missing in Island Health’s attempt to downplay issues that are having a serious effect on the lives of their employees and patients was a chorus of happy hospital workers smiling behind them on the podium.
Ironically, MacNeil inadvertently pinpointed the source of problems by noting that only about 15 percent of the people who at the two North Island Hospitals were consulted in the design process.
The 300 people MacNeil said were involved in the design process — out of more than 1,900 staff and doctors — were mostly senior managers and physicians. The few frontline workers who were consulted have told Decafnation their input obviously wasn’t heard or was ignored.
But while the board chair and the CEO shied away from addressing problems head-on in public, several of the presenters were more direct.
Jennifer Pass, representing the Comox Valley Elders Take Action group, told the board that CVH staff are disrespecting people based on age, and recounted two personal stories in support.
Pass also criticized the lack of cleanliness in the hospital. She shared a personal experience in the hospital where she saw beds left unmade for days and filthy bathrooms. Her observations coincide with those of several staff members who have spoken with Decafnation.
On health care for seniors, Pass said 2020 was too long to wait for new residential care beds. Island Health has issued a Request for Proposals to build “up to 120” new complex care beds, which MacNeil estimated would be opened “sometime in 2020.”
That concern was also voiced by Peggy Stirrett of the seniors advocacy group, Senior Voices Comox Valley.
Stirrett said the “up to 120” beds sometime in 2020 is not enough, and not soon enough.
“By 2020, (the Comox Valley) will need 100 or more beds than that, and by 2021 we’ll be back in the same situation as today,” she said.
Screen shot of agenda as posted on the Island Health website
Seniors Voices believes there is a current need for between 151 to 506 additional residential care beds based on several formulas used by the government itself.
“The Comox Valley has not received an equitable share of the resources,” she said.
Melanie Olson, spoke on behalf of the Power of 5, a group of “frustrated caregivers trying to keep their loved ones (with dementia) at home as long as possible.”
Olson told the board that Island Health’s support for family, unpaid caregivers is lacking, especially considering that they save the province an estimated $3.5 billion per year.
Hollins skipped over the 10 minutes set aside for questions from the floor (as specified in the agenda) and then abruptly closed the meeting with a tone-deaf remark.
“It’s clear there are many issues in health care. We’ll never be able to meet them all,” she said. “But we appreciate hearing from you today.”
The Vancouver Island Health Authority (Island Health) board of directors will hear several presentations today from north Island residents.
By holding its March 29th meeting in Courtenay, the board has given local residents an opportunity to voice their many concerns, which this website first brought to the public’s attention in a series of articles in January.
The board’s published agenda states that 60 minutes have been set aside for public presentations, but does not specify which community applications to make a presentation have been accepted.
But we can speculate.
The board is likely to hear about the lack of long-term care beds in the Comox Valley, problems caused by overcapacity at both the Courtenay and Campbell River hospitals, long waits in the emergency department and perhaps even a plea to reactivate portions of the now-closed St. Joseph’s General Hospital to mitigate some of these issues.
Some residents may express concern about the consequences of how poorly Island Health planned their new hospitals and have neglected regional senior care services.
We may even hear a plea from the Equal Access Comox Valley group to deny The Views at St. Joseph’s any of the proposed 120 new long-term care beds — perhaps any public funding at all — because the religious-based facility does not allow Medical Assistance in Dying on its property.
FURTHER READING: No MAiD, No Contract!; Decafnation’s hospital series
Concerned citizens should not expect that board members or executives will respond to public questions or presentations at this meeting, at least in any meaningful way. Precedent indicates that if the board responds at all, it will be through written statements or private meetings.
Nearly three months after Decafnation exposed that hospital planning failures have lead to staff shortages and other problems causing low staff morale at the Comox Valley Hospital, nothing has been done to address the issues.
Frontline workers have received no acknowledgement of the problems they face or asked their input on how to resolve issues, including hospital design flaws and inefficient Island Health procedures, that have left them overworked and frustrated.
The response from hospital management and Island Health executives has been that these problems are “normal,” and will work themselves out over time.
Meanwhile, the CVH reached a new record high in overcapacity last Friday with 178 admitted patients.
That’s 49 more patients than the 129 opened beds for which the hospital is budgeted and staffed. And it’s 25 more patients than expected by 2025, when hospital planners expected CVH to reach maximum capacity of 153 admitted patients.
Emergency room staff — where reports of wait times have stretched up to eight hours — are often on the front line of some of these problems.
One Decafnation reader wrote that the experience of her husband at CVH “was appalling, total ignorance of his recent heart surgery.”
The man had a heart attack and was treated well at CVH initially, and at Royal Jubilee Hospital where he had five-vessel bypass surgery.
But when he started bleeding into the bowel from Equis after his return home and went to the CVH emergency, he waited five hours to see a physician, and then kept on a stretcher (cubicle with a curtain) in the day surgery area for eight days with no shower and forced to use a commode.
Then he was transferred to the emergency overflow area and provided with a bed, but no shower, and discharged two days later.
“Sleeping on a stretcher, not being able to shower for 10 days and having to use a commode is not acceptable care,” said our reader.
The Island Health board meeting is open to the public. It starts at 1.30 p.m. in the Crown Isle Resort ballroom located on ClubHouse Drive.
PHOTO: Mack Laing cutting a Douglas fir with a Wee McGregor, a mechanical bucker, on the Comox waterfront in September 1925. — B.C. Archives
NOTE: This article was updated at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 15
Shakesides supporters encouraged, court hearing adjourned to April
A B.C. Supreme Court hearing scheduled for this morning (March 15) to determine whether to grant standing to the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) in the Town of Comox’s application to vary one of the famous ornithologist’s trusts has been adjourned until April.
MLHS lawyer Patrick Canning had a medical emergency and could not attend. In a written statement to Supreme Court Justice Robin Baird, Canning asked for the case to be adjourned. Lawyers for the Town of Comox and the B.C. Attorney General’s office wanted to proceed anyway.
But saying he had spent time reading much of the nine affidavits submitted by Comox Valley citizens and organizations, such as Comox Valley Nature, Justice Baird said “the society has an arguable case and it should be heard.”
“I’m not pre-judging the case, I’ve just read the materials,” Justice Baird said. “There are serious issues at stake; it’s been 36 years; and, the vindication of a will.”
Justice Baird seemed to encourage the town’s counsel and the AG lawyer not to oppose standing for MLHS.
“Obviously, there has to be a hearing,” Justice Baird said. “Unless counsels can decide, upon reflection, that it’s not necessary … we can get to the merits of the case sooner.”
And later while discussing a date for the adjourned hearing, Justice Baird said again “but if counsel can come to terms (about granting standing to MLHS), let the trial coordinator know (in order to cancel time for a hearing on standing).”
When all parties agreed to adjourn to April 16 in Nanaimo, Justice Baird left with what may or may not have been an intentional whimiscal comment.
“We’ll let nature takes its course; it has been 36 years,” he said.
Supporters and opponents of the town’s petition attended the court hearing, as did four member of Comox Town Council: Mayor Paul Ives and councillors Russ Arnott, Marg Grant and Maureen Swift.
ORIGINAL STORY: B.C. Supreme Court to hear Shakesides arguments today
The B.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments this morning (March 15) in Courtenay whether to grant “standing” to the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) in a case that will decide the future of Laing’s historic home, Shakesides.
MLHS lawyer Patrick Canning will argue that nine affidavits totalling nearly 500 pages of evidence compiled by Comox Valley citizens and organizations, negate the basis of the Town of Comox’s petition to vary one of three trusts given by Laing to the community.
The Town of Comox has opposed standing for MLHS. The town hopes to shield the citizen’s evidence and exhibits from the court.
FURTHER READING: What is “standing?”
The town wants to demolish Laing’s iconic home, which he willed to the town, and use the money he also left for purposes other than those the acclaimed ornithologist intended.
The town has petitioned the court, under a specific section of the Community Charter, to vary the “terms applicable to money held in trust if a municipal council considers the terms or trust to no longer be in the best interests of the municipality.”
J-Kris Nielsen, president of MLHS, said “justice would only be served” if the court considers all the facts and evidence.
Nielsen said the nine affidavits that MLHS wants the court to see painstakingly detail how the town has misspent Laing’s money, disregarded the intention of his three trusts over a 36-year period and misstated facts to the court corroborated by its own documents.
Granting “standing” would mean the MLHS lawyer could present the affidavits to the court to consider in ruling on the town’s petition.
But, if the Supreme Court does not directly grant standing to MLHS, the affidavits may still be considered by the court.
MLHS filed a counter-petition this week challenging many of the facts in the town’s original petition, and the town must respond. Nielsen said that could get the most critical information before the court.
It’s possible the court will not rule on the town’s petition or the MLHS’s counter-petition at this sitting. It could put the matter over until its next session in July.
At issue is whether the town can demolish Laing’s home, which he gave to the Comox community for the purpose of establishing a natural history museum.
The MLHS wants the town to preserve Shakesides as a heritage site, and to create some form of a natural history museum, as Laing wished.
The town wants to build a viewing platform, despite having already built a viewing platform just footsteps aways from Shakesides, on the site of Laing’s original home, called Baybrook. The town tore down that house in 2015.
MLHS also wants the Supreme Court to order a forensic audit of the Laing trusts.
MLHS contends the town has misstated the amount of cash Laing left them after his death in February of 1982 and that the trust today should be worth up to nearly $500,000.
FURTHER READING: Town of Comox confesses, we misspent Laing’s money!; More Mack Laing articles
Comox Council and staff admitted in December to misspending Laing’s money, and have put funds back into the trust. It is now worth $256, 305.98, according to the town’s petition.
That’s a significant increase in the trust’s value from the $70,000 the town told a 2016 citizens advisory committee. The committee eventually recommended demolition, although several members disagreed and presented a contrary minority report to the Town Council.
It’s likely the committee would have made a different recommendation if it had known there was more than a quarter-million dollars available for restoration and fulfillment of Laing’s trust. And that money could have been leveraged up, including an offer of funds from Heritage B.C., which has urged the town to preserve the building.
Who was Hamilton “Mack” Laing?
Hamilton Mack Laing was a naturalist, photographer, writer and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront from 1922 through 1982 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing gave his waterfront property, his home, substantial cash and personal papers from his estate to the Town of Comox “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.” The town accepted the money and, therefore, the terms of the trust.
But 36 years later, the Town of Comox has done nothing to satisfy his last wishes and mishandled the money Laing left, raising serious ethical and legal questions, which the B.C. Supreme Court may ultimate answer.
Laing moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables.
After his wife, Ethel, died in 1944, he sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot.
Shakesides’ heritage value
An independent and nationally recognized heritage consulting firm issued a Statement of Significance regarding the former home of naturalist Mack Laing — known as “Shakesides.” They said the building is of national importance and that it should be saved for its historic value and for the enjoyment of future generations.
The chairman of Heritage B.C., a provincial agency committed to “conservation and tourism, economic and environmental sustainability, community pride and an appreciation of our common history,” believes the heritage value of Shakesides demands that Laing’s former home should be “conserved for … future generations” and that the Town of Comox should “use the building in ways that will conserve its heritage value.”
Heritage B.C. has offered its assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and pretty much guaranteed the town a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation program.
The town has ignored Heritage B.C.’s offer.
FURTHER READING: Who are the B.C. Supreme Court justices?