PHOTO: 21st Street is in the middle at the bottom, with the car lot on the right side. It crosses Cliffe Avenue and dead-ends at the Courtenay Airpark boundary. Dave Bazett photo
A proposed new bridge would kill the Courtenay Airpark, walkway, Hollyhock Marsh, undermine Kus-kus-sum and add another signal light on Comox Road. So why is the City of Courtenay promoting it? Even mayoralty candidates aren’t sure
The City of Courtenay has floated a proposal to build a third crossing of the Courtenay River at 21st Street to alleviate traffic congestion at the 17th Street and Fifth Street bridges.
The proposal, which is part of a study for the city’s required update of their 2014 Master Transportation Plan, would wipe out the Courtenay Airpark, part of the Airpark walkway, destroy the estuary’s last remaining intact ecosystem at Hollyhock Marsh, undermine the Kus-kus-sum rehabilitation project and create another major signaled intersection on Comox Road at a point that regularly floods during winter storms.
Not to mention that Hollyhock Marsh is protected crown land and is an area under claim by the K’omoks First Nation.
It’s an idea that has left many people shaking their heads.
“I thought it was an April Fools Day joke,” said Dave Bazett, a land surveyor whose office is in the proposal’s path and who owns two aircraft hangared at the airpark.
Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen said the study appears to have been done by someone who doesn’t know anything about the area.
“And, who employs someone to pursue an idea that’s not feasible?” he said.
Bazett pointed his finger at the city, which defined the scope of the transportation plan update for the consultant, including a bridge south of 17th Street and the idea that the airpark and the marsh were expendable.
Even the three announced candidates for Courtenay mayor tried to distance themselves from the proposal.
David Frisch emphasized that the proposal is not a plan, just some consultant’s idea. He said there are more environmentally friendly options.
Bob Wells said he didn’t know how a third crossing got in the plan. He thinks its an option the consultant picked up from previous studies, before Kus-kus-sum became a community project.
Erik Eriksson wondered how many millions of dollars per minute of wait time at the existing bridge intersections the public is willing to pay for. A new crossing would cost tens of millions of dollars.
“So we’re not going to see another bridge in my lifetime,” Eriksson said.
The city has undertaken a required four-year update to its 2014 Master Transportation Plan. It held an open house in March and another in mid-June, and is conducting an online survey.
The study and community feedback will be presented to the Courtenay City Council over the summer. Council members will decide what parts of the study get costed out and eventually make it into the 2018 Master Transportation Plan.
Take the survey here
FURTHER READING: See the study’s open house display boards; The city’s Master Transportation Plan webpage
The 2014 plan also examined options for a third crossing. It rejected crossings at 19th and 26th streets, and suggested Eighth or 11th streets for new bridges. The city eventually costed out an 11th Street bridge at around $35 million, and later dropped the idea.
But traffic congestion at the 17th Street east intersection and at the Fifth Street east intersection has worsened as the Comox Valley has grown. But is it unbearable?
Wait times at the bridges may pale now in comparison to the Langford Crawl in Victoria or to numerous choke points in Vancouver, but without an acceptable long-term solution, motorists’ frustration will magnify.
Why 21st Street won’t fly
Bowen, a former BC Ministry of Highways employee in the Comox Valley, said the third crossing proposal and other proposals in the study to build new roads across the Courtenay Flats farmland “fly in the face” of everything Project Watershed has been trying to achieve.
“We’ve been working on projects over the past 20 years to preserve and protect the remaining flora and fauna habitat along the river and K’omoks estuary,” he said. “This proposal has no regard for the estuary. It’s single-minded and not well-informed.”
Local citizens fought Crown Zellerbach from filling in the marsh back in the 1960s and battled them and the provincial government to save the pristine ecosystem, which is unique in the Comox Valley.
Hollyhock Marsh is the model for Kus-kus-sum, a project to restore of the old Fields sawmill site, and the marsh is it’s connection back to the estuary.
“It’s a non-starter for us (Project Watershed,” Bowen said. “And I would expect for K’omoks First Nation, too.”
Decafnation was unable to reach K’omoks Chief Nicole Rempel for this story.
Bazett, a pilot who uses aircrafts in his land surveying business, considers the 21st Street crossing a “purposeful attack” on the Courtenay Airpark.
Bazett says the city has tried to shut down the airport before and neither the mayor or council members have been supportive.
“This crossing was concocted as an excuse to eliminate the airpark,” he said. “The study didn’t even consider air transportation.”
He doesn’t think the city realizes the economic impact and importance of the airport. It brings pilots and passengers to town and the RCMP and MediVac helicopters use the facility regularly.
“It’s a precious jewel,” he said. “There are few private airparks in the province for both float and land aircraft, and within walking distance of town.”
Bowen said his experience working with the highways ministry taught him there are better options to improve traffic flow.
The primary problem is that there are two northbound lanes of traffic approaching the bridge from the south on Cliffe Avenue and two lanes on the bridge. But whether you turn north or south, you have to merge down to one lane.
It’s the same approaching the bridge from the north on the Island Highway bypass, which is two lanes at Superstore, but merges down to one lane at the bridge.
Bowen believes there should be four lanes of traffic approaching the 17th Street bridge, across the bridge and then all the way to the Shell gas station at the old Island Highway and also part way toward Comox.
The long-term solution, he said, is to twin the 17th Street bridge. The highways ministry purchased extra land on the north side of 17th Street east of Cliffe Avenue to anticipate a widened bridge. That land looks like a park with cherry trees.
The ministry also designed the bypass for four lanes, which is why the shoulders are extra wide through the S-turns.
Bowen agree with Erik Eriksson about also widening the Fifth Street bridge and making it four lanes from the Shell gas station at the bottom of Mission Hill all the way to Cliffe Avenue.
An election issue?
City Councillor Eriksson says the study is flawed in another important way: it only considers Courtenay boundaries.
“Any traffic study has to be regional,” he said. “And Comox people should help pay for any traffic improvements.”
Councillor Frisch wouldn’t rule out a third crossing forever, but he said “city taxpayers are not going to pay $20 million to $30 million for a new bridge.”
The question for him is where to spend the city’s limited funds.
“If we spend it on a bridge now, what’s the lost opportunity to support walkability, cycling, transit and other things,” he said.
City Council candidate Melanie McCollum said the cost of building a bridge across a estuary seems potentially prohibitively high.
“It’s very sensitive habitat. It would also mean building into sediment, which liquefies in an earthquake,” she said. “Of course this is not my area of specialty, but from what I know, building a bridge in an earthquake zone on sediment will incur some very expensive geoengineering.”
McCollum would also like to know if the plan for this bridge had taken into account sea level rise expected in the next 50 to 70 years.
Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula did not respond to our questions.
Comox mayoral candidate Tom Diamond has a strong vision for a vibrant town facing massive growth pressures — a future by design, not by default
Tom Diamond loves the Town of Comox. He’s lived there for eight years, and thinks it’s a well-run municipality. But he would like to see the town led toward a more vibrant future.
So Diamond is running for mayor in this fall’s election.
During a Saturday morning interview over coffee outside The Grind on Beaufort Avenue, Diamond talked about his strong vision for Comox, and why the town’s unavoidable growth pressures make it so important.
“Massive growth is upon us, the whole Comox Valley. We can’t escape it,” he told Decafnation. “But with a well-defined vision, we can plan for it and manage it.”
Diamond points to the town’s default residential zoning, which makes every development project a one-off discussion, or fight. Some projects are stalled for years as a result.
“That’s fine in a slow-growing environment,” Diamond said. “But we can’t afford that anymore.”
FURTHER READING: Tom Diamond for mayor
Diamond’s campaign platform is based on developing a clear community vision, and making zoning decisions ahead of time.
“The council doesn’t know what the right thing to do is without a community vision,” he said. “With a plan, we’ll know when the right development comes along, and we can choose wisely.”
Diamond sees the Oct. 20 municipal election as a referendum of sorts.
“Are the people of Comox interested in a plan for the future, one that creates a vibrant downtown, attracts 21st century jobs and housing with a range of styles and affordability?” he said.
“I think so.”
Diamond has a masters in clinical psychology (counseling) and a Ph.D in organizational psychology (organizational development, human resources).
He’s worked for the U.S. Navy, several universities in administrative and teaching roles, a consulting group specializing in health care and as an independent psychologist.
Diamond was serving as Director of Academic Affairs for Walden University in Vancouver, when his family decided to seek a quieter lifestyle. They moved to Salt Spring Island, which proved to be too quiet.
FURTHER READING: Brain Fitness Center
The settled in Comox in 2008 as a happy medium. It offered a slow pace, yet had more opportunity for his family.
He’s gotten back into counseling since moving to the Valley, especially in the areas of biofeedback and neurofeedback to improve sleep and focus, reduce anxiety and recover from concussions.
His “brain fitness center” is called BrainiGo.
Vision for Comox
Diamond would use his experience in building strategic plans and forming collaborative teams to create a community vision that won’t get steamrolled by out-of-control growth.
He envisions a revitalized downtown core with a walking promenade from a more formalized seafood market on the docks up to Comox Avenue, lined with locally-owned shops and restaurants. He sees an expand marina, perhaps accessible by small cruise ships.
He sees a Granville Island-style public market, a community swimming pool and a safe network of pathways for non-vehicular traffic.
Diamond wants to encourage and attract technology jobs that will draw younger people to the town, and maximize recreational opportunities to keep them here.
“There are already a lot of younger, working families here that are underserved,” he said. “One priority will be to incentivize a wider variety of housing styles and price ranges.”
In Diamond’s vision, Comox not only keeps, but enhances the beauty of its coastline, and retains a small village feel within the downtown area.
The key, he says, is a “vision-led town council, rather than slowing everything down.”
Why mayor, not a council position?
Although he’s not held elected office before, Diamond says the mayor’s role is the right fit for his skill set and the motivation behind his campaign.
“I have a lot of big picture experience and that combined with my leadership and collaborative skills, makes me a better candidate for mayor,” he said. “I want to encourage people to get involved in shaping their town.”
He readily admits that his vision for Comox reaches high and will take time to achieve. But without that kind of thinking, he says the growth that is coming our way will bulldoze us.
“I believe the people want a future by design, not by default,” he said.
Courtenay is growing into a bigger city and Melanie McCollum’s budgetary and finance experience can help guide the city through decisions on transportation and housing that will have long-lasting impacts
Courtenay City Council candidate Melanie McCollum has had a couple of fairly recent “aha” political moments.
The first moment came while knocking on doors in support of David Frisch’s 2014 council campaign, something she was initially reluctant to do.
“It was an eye opener for me that I actually enjoyed the process of talking about issues with people on their doorsteps,” she said.
The second occurred to her in 2016 while sitting through one of many School District 71 board meetings about the controversial proposal to close Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary, which serves the area where she and her family live.
“I asked myself, how have I — as an adult and parent — not attended a school board meeting before?” McCollum said.
Those moments created a thought in the back of her mind of some day running for office, but it did not become an active thought until this year.
“I’ve got space in my life now,” she said. “And the city is entering … growing into an interesting time, and the growth that Courtenay is currently experiencing means that the decisions made by the new council are going to have long-lasting impacts”
McCollum moved to the Comox Valley from Victoria in 2006, originally settling in Union Bay and later moving into Courtenay. She grew up on Gabriola Island with her politically active parents, and worked on a friend’s mother’s MP campaign while in Victoria.
She believes her education background and professional experience could help have a positive impact on the city’s future.
McCollum has a undergraduate degree in geography, focused on urban planning, and a post-degree diploma in accounting. She’s worked for the past 11 years at North Island College, currently as a financial analyst.
She takes a fresh perspective on the city’s status, a way of imagining it that might escape people who have lived here much longer.
“Courtenay is a city in transition,” she says. “From a small city to a bigger city.”
McCollum points to myriad traffic issues and transportation infrastructure needs as evidence that municipal government must recognize this transition-in-progress.
She points out there is no safe route for high school students to ride bicycles from West Courtenay to either G.P Vanier or Mark Isfeld high schools. And once on Lerwick, right-hand bike lanes turn into right-turn lanes, which makes it risky to cycle there.
“Thirteen-year-old kids may want to ride their bikes, and not wait for mom or dad to pick them up, it seems reasonable to provide that as a safe option” she said.
The bus stop on lower Ryan Road, serving a large residential area, causes pedestrians to navigate the most dangerous, and accident-prone stretches of roadways in the city without a sidewalk.
McCollum would like to see bump-out crosswalks, similar to what Robb Road residents petitioned for in Comox, so pedestrians can be more easily seen.
“There’s a political will on transportation infrastructure to prioritize modes other than vehicle traffic,” she said. “We should add these considerations when making infrastructure decisions.”
Bringing transportation infrastructure up to date is “the crux of not being a small town any more,” she said.
McCollum’s other key issue is to create an environment that encourages developers to build a wider variety of housing and to solve the city’s need to create more urban infill density without building tall apartment buildings or sprawl on the edges of town.
She envisions financial incentives to build a style of housing within walking distance to downtown that provides just enough space for a family, includes some outdoor space and doesn’t cost a fortune. She thinking of something like townhouses or row houses, a style in between condo towers and single-family homes.
The “missing middle” housing is a problem that urban planners across North America are grappling with in large and small cities.
McCollum thinks there are council-level actions that could make it profitable for builders to fill this gap. She mentions lower development costs and other incentives to build the right kind of housing in the right locations.
And she notes that greater density living in the core would have a positive impact on downtown businesses.
McCollum said she would help develop housing strategies so that the city was prepared when the federal and provincial governments offer financial supports to solve the nation’s housing problems.
“It’s important to be ready, have a plan, know what we want, so we don’t miss any opportunities,” she said.
The City of Nanaimo recently missed out on a significant grant because council was undecided about supportive housing, which McCollum supports.
McCollum hopes voters will recognize how her budgetary and finance skills can benefit the city, but she also stresses her pragmatic and calm approach to issues.
“I don’t have to agree with someone to have an interesting conversation,” she said. “That’s how you get to good decision-making.”
And she’s quick to point out that the city should have more than one female voice on a council of seven members.
The CVRD moved a rezoning application for a water bottling plant in Merville to a public hearing later this summer after the applicant complained the process has not been fair or transparent
UPDATE, 10:30 am June 18 — In a surprise move, the Comox Valley Regional District Electoral Areas Services Committee did not take a vote this morning (June 18) to reject a rezoning application for a water bottling plant in Merville.
Instead, following complaints by the applicant, Christopher Scott Mackenzie, that his rezoning application process has been unfair and not transparent, Area C Director Edwin Grieve made a motion to take the application to a public hearing. No date has been set.
The CVRD staff recommended the committee deny Mackenzie’s rezoning application — see original story below.
At this morning’s meeting, Mackenzie said the staff report contained “a lot of derogatory comments that lack any real substance.” He called them a “barrage of unbelievable accusations” that have “spiraled out of control.”
Mackenzie submitted documents to the CVRD that he says show fears about depleting the aquifer from which he would draw up to 10,000 litres per day are not true.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. And he briefly noted claims in his submitted documents that the aquifer is actually a catch basin that recharges every year.
He said water levels in the aquifer have increased by 3.2 cm in the last 14 years — the equivalent of more than 300 million litres of water — despite 92 years of water extraction by neighboring property owners.
Before being cut off by the committee chair, Mackenzie alleged that neighboring farms and homesteads had multiple wells into the aquifer, including some that are “free-flowing artesian wells.”
Mackenzie said he doesn’t like how his “simple application” has been represented and that he’s gotten no support from Director Grieve, the Area C representative.
In making his motion for a public hearing Grieve said, “The applicant is concerned about the protection of his process. I don’t want him to think he isn’t getting a fair shake.”
The public hearing is likely to be held sometime this summer.
The original story ….
The Comox Valley Regional District staff has recommended denying a rezoning application for a Merville area property that would permit a water bottling operation.
But the fight to stop the extraction of up to 10,000 litres of groundwater per day is not over.
The Electoral Services Commission is expected to rely on the staff report at its meeting this morning (June 18) and reject the rezoning application. But that only means the applicants cannot operate a water bottling facility on the Sackville road property.
The water license issued to Christopher Scott Mackenzie and Regula Heynck by the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) remains valid.
They can still extract the water and, with an amendment to his license, can sell it by some method other than a bottling facility on the property.
If the couple attempts to truck water off the property to sell and deliver, the case could end up in court over whether “trucking” falls under the CVRD’s rezoning authority.
FURTHER READING: Ministry stalls FOI request; Farmers urge CVRD to reject Merville water bottling operation; Water Bottling project raises aquifer concerns
So the fight to protect the aquifer for nearby farmers has, for now, shifted to the Environmental Appeal Board and a citizens petition.
Bruce Gibbons, who owns and lives on ALR land about 300 metres from the Sackville Road site, has filed an appeal under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA).
Gibbons expects a decision any day on whether he has the right to appeal, meaning whether the merits of his appeal meet the criteria of the WSA. If the board rules in his favor, then he can makes arguments in front of the board for withdrawing or altering Mackenzie’s and Heynck’s water licence.
The Merville Water Guardians, a group of neighboring landowners formed to fight the water bottling operation, is circulating a petition for the BC government to stop approving groundwater licenses for bottling and commercial sales.
“The petition focuses on groundwater,” Gibbons told Decafnation. “With fresh water licences, you can see the effect — a stream goes dry. But with groundwater, you can’t see the impact on an aquifer.”
“The people … must demand … immediate action to stop approving groundwater aquifer licences for bottling and commercial sale to ensure we all have access to good, clean water for our personal needs, to grow our backyard gardens and to supply the farms that grow our food,” the petition reads.
The CVRD staff report echoes that sentiment.
“The proposed land use is incompatible with the surrounding area, and once such land use is permitted through zoning, the CVRD is potentially enabling the use of this property for water bottling at a much greater scale in the future,” the report reads.
K’omoks First Nation
The CVRD reached out to numerous stakeholders and other regulatory agencies for feedback on the rezoning proposal, including the K’omoks First Nation.
In a strong letter to the CVRD, Chief Nicole Rempel noted that KFN had originally opposed the application back in 2017 when the ministry considered the water license.
“I wish to advise you that in addition to the matters that we have raised in our various communications with the province, we are concerned that the actual license has been issued unlawfully,” Rempel wrote. “It is obvious to us that the consultation with K’omoks on this matter has not been meaningful and our substantive concerns have not been addressed.”
FURTHER READING: Read the 206-page staff report, which includes the feedback from K’omoks First Nation and agencies, as well as the public feedback.
Why is the Town of Comox fighting so hard and spending so much money to thwart the Mack Laing Heritage Society from presenting evidence during a BC Supreme Court trial to decide whether the town can vary the terms of the famous ornithologist’s gifts to the municipality?
The Comox mayor and council members are determined not to allow the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) to present evidence in BC Supreme Court about the future of Laing’s heritage home.
And they’re spending tens of thousands of taxpayers’ money to keep the society’s information out of court.
At the Town of Comox’s second Supreme Court appearance in mid-April, Justice Douglas W. Thompson suggested the town work with MLHS lawyer Patrick Canning and the BC Attorney General’s office on an agreement by May 28 that would grant intervenor status to the society with “no restrictions whatsoever” on the evidence it could introduce into the proceedings.
Justice Thompson suggested the consent order as an alternative to taking up more court time on this preliminary issue.
But the town would not agree. It has rejected every attempt by Canning to find an agreement.
Frustrated by the town, the MLHS has since filed a requisition to restart its Application for Standing in the fall Supreme Court session that begins in October.
A standing status would give MLHS equal footing in the ultimate trial with the town and the AG ministry.
FURTHER READING: Read all of Decafnation’s stories about Shakesides here
The consent order would have brought the society’s Application for Standing, which began in March, to a conclusion and the court could have moved on to the merits of the case.
The Town of Comox has petitioned the court to vary the terms of Laing’s trust, including the right to demolish the famous ornithologist’s iconic home, called Shakesides.
The society wants a forensic audit of the Laing financial trust. They also want to present a business plan for future use of Shakesides.
The failure to reach agreement means a third Supreme Court appearance just to decide whether the MLHS can present evidence regarding the town’s arguments for varying the terms of Laing’s trusts.
Coupled with a two-day minimum trial period, pre-trial work and at least three court appearances on the society’s legal standing, the town is racking up enormous legal costs.
The town has not released information about how high it anticipates the legal fees to reach, but some observers speculate it could reach $100,000.
When Decafnation asked each council member and the mayor why they are willing to spend so much money on lawyers to bury the MLHS’s evidence — money that could be used to live up to the terms of the Mack Laing trust — they all declined to comment because the matter was “before the court.”
Nor would councillors talk about related issues that aren’t before the courts.
Asked if council should form a new citizen advisory committee to study possibilities for Shakesides now that the financial trust has almost quadrupled, the mayor and council also declined to comment.
The town is relying on the citizen committee’s contested conclusion that Shakesides isn’t worth saving. Two committee members wrote a dissenting opinion.
But at the time, the town contended there was only $70,000 in the trust.
Since then, the town has admitted to charges by the MLHS, individuals and other organizations that they spent Laing’s money inappropriately and have added back nearly $200,00 into the trust.
Had the citizens committee known there was more than $260,000 available for complying with Laing’s trust, they might have come to a different, perhaps even unanimous conclusion.
The committee was seriously misled about the finances of the Laing trust.
Yet not one council member has publicly asked if the matter should be reconsidered before spending additional tens of thousands of dollars with a Vancouver law firm.
Now a third BC Supreme Court day will be consumed by a debate over whether the Justices should consider nine affidavits totalling 500 pages of evidence compiled by the MLHS.
Two Justices have already said the “armful of evidence” makes “an arguable case and it should be heard.” The Justices have said, “There are serious issues at stake; it’s been 36 years; and, the vindication of a will.”
Apparently there are many questions the town does not want the MLHS to ask in court. They’re spending a ton of tax dollars to prevent it.
Makes you wonder why. What is the Town Council afraid of?