When elected officials and the community they represent achieve a certain level of synchronicity, good governance and good outcomes usually result.
So a reasonable person might expect that after voters strongly rejected a Comox Valley Regional District sewerage system proposal for the Royston/Union Bay area that CVRD directors and staff might start paying closer attention to the mood of its constituents.
But not the Comox Valley Sewage Commission.
At its July meeting, the commission received more than 700 petitions from people opposed to building a second sewage pumping station at Beech Street, in the Croteau Beach neighborhood. Surely, such a large showing of public opinion deserved some attention.
But when Area B Director Rod Nicol, who is not part of the commission (see below), presented the petitions, there was a deafening silence. No discussion. No questions about why so many people from all over the Comox Valley object to the CVRD’s plan. No attempt to understand what so many petitions might mean in a larger context.
Only Courtenay Director Erik Eriksson seemed to get the message.
Eriksson suggested the petitions represented wide community concern about more than a single pump station on Beech Street. And then he ticked off a long list of those possible other concerns.
There’s limited capacity at the existing sewage treatment plant on Brent Road. There’s concern that sewage pipes in the foreshore of the K’omoks Estuary present a growing danger to a sensitive environment.
The Courtenay #1 pump station needs an upgrade. Project Watershed wants to restore the Field Sawmill site. Cumberland has opted out of CVRD sewerage plans. Voters failed the South Sewer Project referendum, as did Miracle Beach/Saratoga voters previously.
What’s needed, Eriksson said, is for the regional district to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new overall plan that encompasses the whole Comox Valley and that takes citizen and environmental concerns seriously. That’s what people want.
Amen to that. It’s an approach this website supports and has continually promoted.
Missing Eriksson’s point, Commission Chair Barbara Price, of Comox, said they already had a Sewage Master Plan (SMP). Kris La Rose, of the CVRD’s engineering staff, added that the regional district was following the SMP.
Except that they aren’t.
Major Trevor Fenton, the CFB Comox representative on the commission, asked why the staff hadn’t engaged a coastal engineering specialist to determine the remaining life of the raw sewage pipe running along the beach below Willemar Bluffs as recommended in the SMP five years ago.
It’s an important point because if the pipe doesn’t present any imminent danger for the next 5-10 years, then there’s no urgency to abandon that section of pipe and, therefore, no need for a new pump station on Beech Street.
There would be, in other words, enough time to develop a better plan, as Director Eriksson suggested.
La Rose answered that an assessment of the pipe’s condition is technically challenging because it operates continuously. And it would be expensive.
But does it make any sense to spend millions on a patchwork plan to replace a section of pipe that may be in good working condition? Shouldn’t that fact be determined first?
The sewage commission can’t have it both ways. They say they have a plan, but they don’t follow the plan. They haven’t conducted a plan review every three years or created a governance structure for areas outside of the existing mandate and other recommendations in the plan.
These inconsistencies suggest some unspoken purpose for wanting to build a second Comox pump station, despite such strong public opinion against it.
Earlier in the meeting, La Rose gave an overview of a recent open house on the Comox #2 pump station. It was a pleasant depiction that overlooked that most of the people who attended were opposed and that competing displays were set up outside the open house where opponents were busy gathering more signed petitions.
And when Area B Director Rod Nichol asked why the information from the sewage advisory group was missing from the open house, it was shrugged off as no big deal.
But it is a big deal, because the advisory group’s top recommendation was to upgrade the Courtenay #1 pump station now, eliminating any need for a second Comox pump. It’s a fact the sewage commission curiously ignores.
The CVRD Sewage Commission doesn’t have a good track record. It’s marred by mistakes, lawsuits and failure in the court of public opinion. So it’s time to do as Director Eriksson suggests: step back and develop a new plan in sync with the community.
Editor’s note: The Comox Valley Regional District Sewer Commission is a misnomer. The system of sewer pipes, pump stations and single treatment plant managed by the commission serves primarily the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox, who own the system. HCMS Quadra ties into the system as does the K’omoks First Nation.
But residents of rural areas, A, B and C are not served and have no seat on the commission. Neither does the Town of Cumberland, which manages its own sewerage system.
By Jennifer Sutherst
Project Watershed has filed a natural resource violation complaint with the province against the Town of Comox for the work they are undertaking along Lazo Road in the Point Holmes area.
The town has chosen to install rip-rap (large angular rocks) to address erosion taking place along the shoreline, and to make room for a three-meter wide shoreline trail. We believe this treatment will destroy an important remnant area of sensitive Coastal Sand Ecosystem and will be ineffective in the long-term.
Erosion-control structures such as bulkheads, seawalls and rip-rap, are known as hard armouring and have been shown to cause a loss of natural shoreline ecosystems, damage vital shoreline habitat and exacerbate erosion problems on adjacent properties.
Hard armouring amplifies the energetic forces of the waves that come into contact with it, whereas a natural, gradually sloping beach will absorb the energy of the waves.
You can read more about Comox shoreline erosion and its causes, and other concerns over the town’s rip-rap project at Cape Lazo here and here.
The accelerated erosion in the Point Holmes area is the result of a domino effect of hard armouring that started when the CVRD buried a sewer pipe beneath the Willemar Bluffs in the mid-1980s. This initial disturbance destabilized the natural processes of erosion and accretion from longshore currents and wind that shape the landforms such as spits, dunes, beaches and sand bars.
Local property owners began to experience erosion issues and successfully sued the CVRD for damages. In order to halt this erosion rip-rap was installed below the Willemar Bluffs. Soon after, other beaches began to erode and private property owners to the north of the bluffs began to lose shoreline. They in turn also began to install rip-rap to save their properties.
Now, the popular Cape Lazo/Point Holmes beach has started to suffer from erosion during more frequent and intense winter storms, a trend which is likely to continue as we experience the impacts of climate change.
Another consequence of this work being undertaken by the town is that the remaining natural dune vegetation in the area will be significantly reduced or lost due to the stabilizing effect of the rip-rap armouring. This will promote the establishment of shrubs and then trees over herbaceous dune plants. Species present at the site such as Silver Burweed and Beach Dunegrass will likely diminish in extent.
Given the high level of soil disturbance associated with the work, Scotch Broom and other invasive plants will likely become dominant in many places.
Rip-rap armouring of shorelines in our region also impacts the marine ecosystems. In particular, the beach areas shorten and become steeper which reduces the area available to beach spawning fishes (known as forage fish), and decreases the availability of forage fish to salmon, seabirds and other marine species.
The State of Washington recognizes that hard armoring destroys sensitive shorelines and has an incentive program to help landowners remove hard armouring and replace it with Green Shore projects.
Green Shore projects imitate natural systems and confer many benefits including: shoreline stability, improving the habitat for fish and other wildlife, improving access for swimming and other water activities, offer a more natural aesthetic, and can save a significant amount of money.
The Town of Comox has stated that they are using a blending of ‘Green Shore methods’ but no Green Shore project would include the installation of rip-rap along one of the last remaining sand dune areas in our region where the greatest amount of natural dune vegetation is located.
Based on the information that has been provided to Project Watershed, the Town of Comox does not currently have a permit to undertake this work on Crown land. We have made multiple requests to the provincial government to clarify whether or not they require such a permit, but have received no response to date.
We believe that permits and an adequate public review processes are required and in the interim we have filed a natural resource violation complaint against the town and the contractor undertaking the work. Extensive damage has already been done to the area since work started at the end of June.
This area is one of two locations in the entire Georgia Basin where wind-formed backshore dunes are known to occur, and the only place on Earth where Garry Oak – Shore Pine – Sand Dune communities occur.
Jennifer Sutherst is the estuary coordinator and staff biologist for Project Watershed. She wrote this article on behalf of the Project Watershed board of directors: Barbara Wellwood, Bill Heath (biologist), Bill Heidrick, Brian Storey, Dan Bowen, Don Castleden, Paul Horgen (biologist) and Tim Ennis (biologist).
By voting unanimously last week to demolish Shakesides, the home of noted Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing, the Comox Town Council has failed to recognize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build community cohesiveness.
Hamilton Mack Laing was a naturalist, photographer, writer and noted ornithologist, whose work from the Comox waterfront since 1922 earned him worldwide recognition.
Laing gave his waterfront property, his home and the cash 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.
Laing’s own letters, now preserved in the B.C. Archives, show that prior to his death in 1982 he held discussions with Town of Comox officials, and that he was satisfied they would follow-through on the instructions in his Last Will.
But 34 years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy his last wishes and mishandled the money Laing left, raising serious ethical and legal questions. You can read about those here and here.
Those matters may ultimately be resolved in court when the town applies to change the terms of the trust, and effectively negate Laing’s last requests.
But, the ethical and legal issues aside, the Town Council should have heeded those who believe Laing’s importance and his last wishes deserve something better than yet another forgettable viewing platform.
It’s not too late to change course.
The renovation of Laing’s home into some form of a nature interpretive center, and the preservation of his legacy, is an opportunity to strengthen this community by honoring its past, and by bringing people together to rebuild and respect Laing’s legacy gift. This project would undoubtedly inspire Comox Valley people.
Community service groups, such as Rotary, look for opportunities like this to support with funding and volunteers. Many building trades have already agreed to donate their expertise and time to restoring Shakesides. Businesses would surely donate materials. Other volunteers would provide labor and raise the necessary funds.
Approached in this way, Shakesides would become a source of community pride. After all, Laing’s home is an important piece of Comox history. Without history, how do people ever acquire a sense of place, of belonging? Our First Nations people understand this better than the rest of us.
But, instead of inspiring volunteers to collaborate for the common good, the council unanimously chose to perpetuate divisiveness. It’s a discouraging lack of vision and leadership.
Faced with similar dilemmas, other communities have done far better.
A decade ago in Campbell River, for example, that City Council considered demolishing the small waterfront cottage where Sybil Andrews, one of Canada’s important artists, did some of her best work. The cottage had fallen into disrepair. It had no foundation; it sat directly on sand.
Led by the Campbell River Arts Council and the Sybil Andrews Heritage Society, citizens convinced the city to restore the cottage, which they did collaboratively.
The community project inspired the city to create a Heritage Registry (Comox does not have one), and they made the Andrews cottage its first entry.
Today, Sybil Andrews Cottage thrives as a gallery to display the works of local artists and as a site for programs of visual and performing arts. Campbell River’s museum and tourist groups promote tours of the cottage as a community attraction. You can read about it here.
Let’s urge the Comox Town Council to reconsider its options. Let’s hope they will work with the Mack Laing Heritage Society, the Comox Valley Naturalists Society and the community at large to take on a project that strengthens our community’s identity and preserves an important part of our heritage.
For more on this issue go here and here and here.
Mack Laing working in his Baybrook Nut Farm
Laing with spring salmon, April 26, 1929
Laing with nut tree branch, undated
Laing with a 52 pound tyee salmon caught at Comox, 1955
Laing, about a year before his death, July 1981
Mack Laing enjoys the first fire at his new home, Baybrook, on Oct. 11, 1923
Wedding photo Mack and Ethel Laing, 1927
When he died in 1982, well-known Canadian naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing left his possessions, his property and house,and his money to the Town of Comox. His Last Will specified that some of the money be used to create a natural history museum in his house and to invest the other funds.
The town has not fulfilled either of those wishes, raising serious ethical and legal questions.
Why didn’t the Town of Comox follow the terms of Hamilton Mack Laing’s trust after the naturalist’s death in 1982, and turn his Shakesides home into some type of natural history museum? Why didn’t that council immediately invest the $45,000 that Laing left for the town to fund those terms?
Has the town spent money from the trust on items that aren’t authorized by the trust’s provisions? If the town had no intention to follow the terms of the trust, why did it accept Laing’s money?
We can ask these questions of every Comox Town Council and mayor since 1982, because they have all had the opportunity to fulfill the terms of the trust.
But the current Comox Town Council hopes to convince a B.C. court to change the terms of the trust to allow the demolition of Shakesides and relieve the town from restrictions on how to use Laing’s money.
Councillors might reasonably argue they are following the recommendation of an advisory committee report that concluded, on a 3-2 vote, the house should be demolished. But two members of the advisory committee say the process was flawed, and they issued a minority report.
The minority report, signed by Angela Burns and Mark Ouellette, presents a picture of a corrupted process that did not address two of its three assigned goals. In fact, they claim the committee chair refused to allow discussions related to those terms of reference. You can read the minority report here and draw your own conclusions.
Laing would be disappointed that what he intended as a wonderful gift to a community he loved has turned into a sordid affair.
But the Town Council has created an impression that they don’t care about getting to the bottom of this story. They don’t question why the money was mishandled or how it was spent. And no councillor has fully addressed the ethical issues.
A reporter has quoted Mayor Paul Ives as saying, “That was then, this is now.” It’s a foolish statement meant to deflect any moral imperative to correct the wrong perpetrated by the Town of Comox for 34 years.
If the federal government followed this logic, Ottawa would try to ignore the land claims by Canada’s First Nations people. By accepting the money from Mack Laing’s estate, the Town of Comox accepted the terms of his trust. But, to date, the town has mostly ignored them.
It’s understandable that the town wants to move forward and bring this saga to a close. But it has a responsibility to consider all the reasonable options. You can read about one idea here, or here.
Council believes a modern interpretation of Laing’s ideas can be accomplished by returning the property to its natural state, because, they say, he was a naturalist.
It’s a silly means of justifying the demolition. If the town actually returned the land to its “natural state,” they’d rip out the bridges, walkways, signs, stairs and other human additions and let the property go wild. That’s it’s true natural state.
Vancouver author Richard Mackie lived in the Shakesides house for several months following Laing’s death. A friend of Laing’s, Mackie packaged up Laing’s drawings and writings and notes. He said the house at that time was “beautifully maintained.”
The Town of Comox, however, says Laing didn’t leave enough money to convert the house into a museum in 1982 and maintains that contention today. The town has done few, if any, repairs over the years. They say the house is in such bad shape that it’s unsuitable for public use and must be torn down.
Responding to letter from Citizen of the Year Ruth Masters in 2001, Comox financial officer Steve Ternent (at the time of the letter) wrote to administrator Helen Dale, in part, that “No natural history museum involving the house has been established to date because the house is old, inadequately powered, poorly insulated and subject to flooding in the basement. It would not be suitable for the use suggested in the will;” that is, a public use.
In Ternent’s description, the house sounds horrible and inhabitable. But that didn’t stop the town from renting the house for 31 years, right up until 2013 — another 12 years after Ternent’s description.
Or, has the town exaggerated the condition of Shakesides to make its case for demolition? A visual examination by a structural engineering firm in December of 2015 found that despite issues related to 34 years of neglect, the structure “has performed adequately to date.”
The firm concluded that, “Provided the building envelope is repaired, structural repairs completed and the loads on the building are unchanged, the building structure will continue to perform adequately in the future.”
However, it appears that the Laing Trust has funded trails, stairs and walkways, none of which Laing referenced. Now the town may use Laing’s money to modify the terms of his trust. And they’re threatening critics that any money the town spends on defending its actions will just drag the fund down further.
But isn’t that in itself a misuse of the funds?
Questions about the Town of Comox’s handling of the Mack Laing Trust are not new. Citizens expressed concern many years ago, including Comox Valley Citizen of the Year Ruth Masters.
In April of 2001, she wrote to then Mayor George Kirkwood and councillors asking for financial information related to the trust and suggesting that some of the Laing funds had been used for inappropriate purposes.
Here is Master’s letter: