The Courtenay Airpark Association believes the city is trying to close down this unique facility on the Vancouver Island coast. In a presentation to City Council today, Airpark volunteers will detail its economic, social and lifestyle benefits for the community
Editor’s note: this story was updated at 9 a.m. to include a Medivac helicopter landing at the Airpark last night due to unfavorable conditions at the hospital heli-pad.
Fearing that someone at Courtenay City Hall wants to turn the Airpark into a condo development, pilots and aviation business owners will pitch the facility’s economic benefits at 4 p.m. today (Aug. 7) to the City Council.
Closing the Courtenay Airpark would shutter several aviation businesses and put roughly 50 people out of work, not to mention the estimated indirect loss of more than $20 million in spin-off economic activity, social benefits and the displacing of 72 private aircraft to other Island communities.
So who is trying to close the Airpark?
Mo Perry, president of the Courtenay Airpark Association, isn’t sure. But he says the signals started well before city staff released a proposed update to its transportation plan that shows a new bridge going directly through the Airpark.
The city, which owns the Airpark land, has been converting leases for aviation businesses, hangars and the volunteer association that runs the aerodrome from a five-year term to month-to-month.
“No business can operate on month-to-month leases successfully,” Perry says. “The uncertainty stifles investment and growth.”
Al Pheaton’s International Aeroproducts Inc. employs 15 tradesmen and up to 30 during the busy winter months fabricating floats for seaplanes and during major restorations of Beaver and Otter aircraft. It’s known worldwide in the aviation community as one of the best in the business.
Pheaton’s business is so successful that he needs to expand his floorspace either into a second, separate building or by adding on to the existing one. But he can’t get approval from the City of Courtenay.
“And anyway, what bank is going to loan money to a business for expansion on a month-to-month lease,” Perry said.
FURTHER READING: Battle brewing over transportation plan; City bridge proposal would harm Airpark, Kus-kus-sum
The Courtenay Airpark is unique in British Columbia because it is accessible for both wheel and float planes. Pilots can bring their floatplanes in for repair and leave via wheeled planes.
But the city has been stalling a long, overdue restoration of the float plane ramp, despite provincial and federal support and approval for the project.
So when the proposed transportation plan update came out with a road and bridge through the Airpark’s runway, Perry said the city’s plan became obvious.
But Airpark volunteers don’t know who at city hall is trying to drive them out.
Current Mayor Larry Jangula and the three mayoralty candidates — David Frisch, Erik Eriksson and Bob Wells — have all previously told Decafnation that Airpark volunteers and business owners shouldn’t worry about the proposed third crossing at 21st Street.
“It’s just a concept,” Jangula said.
Decafnation emails Jangula and the three mayoralty candidates yesterday (Aug. 6) and asked if they were in favor of closing the Courtenay Airpark and using the land for some other purpose:
Eriksson said, “I like the Airpark.”
Frisch said, “That question has too many unknowns to give a yes or no answer. I do value the airpark amenity, but I must stay open to all possibilities for this city owned asset.”
Wells and Jangula did not reply.
Other organizations, like Project Watershed, are also alarmed by the 21st Street bridge proposal. A roadway and bridge there would slice Hollyhock Marsh in half and affect the group’s future restoration of the old Field’s Sawmill site, known now as Kus-kus-sum. The group has said it would oppose any crossing south of 17th Street.
Comox Valley Nature President Jim Boulter has said his organization is also opposed to the 21st Street bridge proposal.
Hollyhock Marsh is provincially owned and protected land, so it’s somewhat unlikely the city would be allowed to build a bridge through it.
But Perry and other Airpark volunteers, like Dave Mellin, worry that abandoning the bridge proposal won’t diminish the city’s attacks on the Airpark despite its 2016 Official Community Plan that requires council to “protect the integrity of the airpark and marina facilities at 20th Street; work with non-profit societies to improve and expand facilities as required.”
“The Airpark is the only park owned by the city that actually generates revenue,” Perry said. “All of their other parks cost the city money.”
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The Airpark was originally built by local pilots in the early 1960s. Eric Franklin was the first pilot to land there — on a gravel runway — in September of 1964.
Since its origin 55 years ago, all the improvements to the facility — except for provincial grants for paving the runway and installing an underground fuel system — have been funded from Airpark revenue or through volunteers.
Airpark businesses that include aircraft maintenance, flight schools and timber cruising have created up to 50 direct jobs and roughly 90 indirect jobs, producing about $50,000 in revenue annually for the city.
More than 700 student pilots and in excess of 200 air force cadets have completed their training at the Airpark. There are two Ministry of Transport approved flight schools on site.
The RCMP use the Airpark regularly, and it will continue to be used for patient transfers on Medivac flights because certain weather conditions will impede landing at the new hospital. A Medivac helicopter landed at the Airpark at 6 p.m. last night (aug. 6) because conditions at the hospital helipad were unfavorable.
“Can’t imagine landing on that hospital heli-pad on a typical Comox Valley blistery winter day with a loaded chopper,” Perry said.
In the event of an emergency, such as an earthquake, the Airpark is the only facility on the west side of the river for evacuation or medical transportation if bridges and roads are disabled.
CFB Comox 4 Construction Engineering Squadron does annual testing of the Airpark runway to ensure that it’s safe for certain military air operations if needed, such as Buffalo and helicopters.
WHO USES THE AIRPARK
Andreas Ruttkiewicz, a former military jet pilot, runs the Air Speed High Ultralight flight school. He started his business in 2007 in Victoria and moved it to Comox in 2011. He trains about 12 to 15 pilots a year.
Sealand Flight, a pilot training and aircraft rental company based in Campbell River, plans to open a Courtenay operation this month. It trains pilots for recreational, private and commercial certification.
International Aeroproducts Inc. is currently doing a complete restoration of a classic Beaver float plane and building sets of floats for several others, including a customer from Panama.
A Texada grocery store flies a Cessna 172 into the Courtenay Airpark three times every week to purchase products for resale to island residents. It’s less expensive and quicker than resupplying via ferry and ground transportation.
Land surveyor Dave Bazett houses two aircraft at the Airpark, one is an iconic de Havilland Beaver float plane that he uses in his work up and down the coast.
Mike Hamilton houses a helicopter at the Airpark used in his logging business, an operation he wants to expand.
On a tour Aug. 4 of the Airpark, Decafnation met several fliers.
Courtenay resident Karina Bakker (also A Mt. Washington ski patrol) just purchased a Cessna 172 on floats in Manitoba and flew it back to the Airpark. She was recently employed by Coril Air doing charter flights out of Campbell River.
“On the coast, there’s no freedom like flying with floats,” she said.
George and Cheryl T. (who asked to keep their last name private) flew in from Abbotsford on a Eurocopter EC120 helicopter with their two daughters to meet up with friends for a cruise on their catamaran sailboat.
Cheryl, who used to live in the Comox Valley, is also a pilot and has flown in and out of the Airpark often.
“This is a classic airport of the type we need to protect,” she said.
An overwhelming majority of directors defeated a motion to consider an amendment to the Regional Growth Strategy via the”minor process” to enable 3L Developments 740-house community near Stotan Falls. But this is still an early round in the 11-year saga
NOTE: this story was updated July 26 to report that 3L Development has decided to proceed with its request for an amendment to the RGS despite the CVRD board deciding it would only do so via the standard amendment process, and to correct the vote total as 7-3 against.
Common sense prevailed at the Comox Valley Regional District board meeting yesterday, July 24, as directors voted 7-3 to reject considering a proposed amendment to the Regional Growth Strategy via an expedited process.
Only Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula, Courtenay Councillor Mano Theos and Comox Councillor Ken Grant voted in favor. The vote required a two-thirds majority for passage, so it failed overwhelmingly.
The CVRD did, however, vote unanimously to initiate the amendment process, which 3L Developments requested as a first step in a long process to build a 740-house new community near Stotan Falls.
3L spokesperson Kabel Atwall has said repeatedly that the company would only proceed via the minor amendment process, but it announced on July 25 that it would continue with its application via the standard process, which involves consultations with neighboring regional districts as well as local governments and the public.
3L said after the meeting it would make an announcement this morning, July 25.
The two votes yesterday, were narrowly focused on whether to consider amending the RGS at all, and, if so, whether it qualified as a minor or standard process by the rules the directors themselves have written into the bylaw.
It was not a vote on the merits of the proposed development, known as Riverwood.
That point seemed to escape directors Larry Jangula and Mano Theos who argued in favor of going the minor process based on a shortage of available building lots, job creation and 3L Developments offer to donate land for a public park surrounding the popular Stotan Falls swimming area.
“Think of the jobs and housing we’ll lose if we shoot this down,” Jangula said.
Area B Director Rod Nichol, who voted against the minor process, set Jangula straight.
“We’re not here to shoot it down,” Nichol said. “We’re deciding to go minor or standard.”
Grant at least kept his comments in support of the minor process on topic.
But it wasn’t only Jangula and Theos who didn’t understand the question before the board, all seven of the pro-development speakers also argued based on housing shortages and a desire for a public park, not whether the 3L application met the minor process criteria.
Only long-time Comox Valley realtor Dale McCartney even mentioned the minor versus standard amendment process question. He dismissed the standard process because he said the decision should be made solely within the Comox Valley.
How we got here
3L Developments first proposed a new, self-contained community on 550 acres between the Browns and Puntledge rivers in 2007. The CVRD rejected it while developing its Regional Growth Strategy, but was later told by the BC Supreme Court to give the proposal a fuller consideration.
Because the Riverwood community isn’t included in the Regional Growth Strategy, 3L applied to have the RGS amended.
The CVRD is the only regional district in the province to allow developers or other private parties to apply for RGS amendments. In all other regional districts, only another government entity can apply to amend the RGS.
The CVRD passed first reading of its own amendment to the RGS at yesterday’s meeting to change that element of its growth bylaw, which will bring the Comox Valley in line with the rest of British Columbia.
At two previous Committee of the Whole meetings, which are not full-board meetings, a majority of directors first rejected recommending the minor process on July 10, then voted in favor of recommending it to the full board at a second meeting on July 17.
Yesterday was the first time the full board had considered the amendment issue.
Courtenay Councillor Bob Wells, Nichol and Area A Director Bruce Jolliffe changed their votes from pro-minor on July 17 to against it yesterday and swung the majority toward a standard process.
Wells, Nichol and Jolliffe probably heard from constituents aghast at how they could ignore clearly written criteria for a minor process, none of which the 3L Development proposal meets.
Their votes also rankled Mayor Jangula, who told radio station 98.9 The Goat, that he found it “amazing” the directors would change their vote due to “I think, the psychological pressure of all the opposed people.”
Jangula reportedly said he didn’t consider that good leadership. By “that,” he seemed to refer to listening to other points of view.
Record number of delegations
At the top of yesterday’s meeting, the board agreed to hear more than its usual number of delegations, including several that had applied to speak after the deadline.
Seven of those spoke in favor of the minor process by way of supporting the Riverwood development, and the five who were opposed stayed mostly on topic.
Diana Schroeder, a 10-year Valley resident asked for clarification of the issues before the board. She asked if the question was whether to allow the development or to accept the park land. She was told no, the question is about the process.
“Oh,” she said, “because I was confused. All the previous speakers were talking about parks.”
Kabel Atwall, speaking for 3L Developments, not as a delegation, said it’s been 11 years and many confusing missteps, which concerned him because “it’s our side that has to point them out.” He said without an amendment to the RGS, 3L would not offer up land for a Stotan Falls park. He said Riverwood would address the Valley’s housing shortage. He read a letter of support from Central Builders Home Hardware.
Atwall claimed the company will make a $780 million capital investment in Riverwood. If they develop 1,000 lots, that’s an investment of $780,000 per lot before house construction and operating profit.
D. Eliason, who owns a home improvement company, said his family was “pigeon-holed to a lot in Crown Isle” when he moved here because there wasn’t anything else available. If Riverwood was available, he would have preferred it. He praised the parkland offer and asked the board to expedite the process.
Greg Hart, the managing broker of Royal LePage, said the Valley has had a critical shortage of houses on the market since 2016.
“If you want to talk affordable housing, we to talk about supply,” he said. “Because local people can’t afford them”
Hart said the Valley “needs product on the market.”
Dale McCartney said there was no such thing as urban sprawl in the Comox Valley.
Ken and Gladys Schmidt, who live near the Riverwood site, says the Stotan Falls area is a parking nightmare now, with garbage strewn around and toilet paper hanging from trees. A developed park with parking lots and sanitation would improve that.
N. Strussi, who described himself as a sportsman, offered directors a tour of the area he has roamed since he was a kid. He wondered why we have to have so much bureaucracy.
P. Walker, a retired airline pilot, complained about how the CVRD handled his own small land development project south of the Trent River. He called 3L founder David Dutcyvich “a visionary” who is handing the CVRD a complete package. He urged the board to fast track the proposal before there’s a “ferris wheel” on the property.
L. Wilson has lived in the area for 45 years and called herself an avid hunter and outdoors person. She said a park near Stotan Falls would provide sanctuary for wildlife, such as deer, that are being driven into cities by diminishing habitat.
“People love to see deer in their yards,” she said.
Diana Schroeder was the first of several speakers to address the issue before the board. She said there was no “wiggle room” in the criteria for a minor amendment to the RGS. To consider the 3L proposal via the minor process “mocks the intent of the Regional Growth Strategy.”
She raised questions about water, fire protection, public transit, compatibility with Courtenay’s Urban Forest Strategy, and other topics.
“These are questions that can only be answered by the standard amendment process,” she said. “And it should take time. The 3L proposal will change the Comox Valley forever.”
D. Bostock suggested the rural Official Community Plan offers other means of preserving land for a park at Stotan Falls. She called the Browns River watershed critical, and, with the Puntledge, provides a natural urban containment, which preserves the rural character surrounding our cities. She disputed 3L’s claims of job creation, saying they can only transfer density from other existing settlement areas, which would then lose construction jobs.
Grant Gordon said the old north Island regional district was divided into two, creating the CVRD, because Courtenay, Comox and Campbell River didn’t like north Island directors interfering with their planning. He said the compromise was the Regional Growth Strategy to sustain our rural areas. He said all the pro-3L speakers were out of order because they didn’t address the issues at hand, and he claimed the municipal directors have too much power over Area A, B and C directors.
Lisa Christianson said she opposes developments that skirt proper procedures for expediency. Since Riverwood would have a major impact on the Valley, she said there’s no way it should qualify for a minor process. She questioned a concern of some directors to get the amendment process completed by the Oct. 20 municipal elections. She was confident that new directors will be competent to deal with the issue.
Wendy Morin, who has lived her entire 55 years in the Valley, said while she’s sympathetic to the affordable housing argument, she said it’s “unfathomable” that the 3L application could fit the minor process criteria. She noted the staff report that said the current settlement areas are not close to capacity and she worried about issues such as water consumption and the city’s Urban Forest Strategy.
The CVRD will immediately notify neighboring regional districts in Nanaimo, Powell River and Strancona of an upcoming RGS amendment proposal for their comment.
CVRD staff will begin working on a consultation plan and time frame for the board to review at its August meeting.
The City of Courtenay may recommend a third bridge as part of its 2018 transportation master plan, but Project Watershed will oppose any crossing of the Courtenay River south of 17th Street
A battle is brewing over how to improve the flow of traffic through Courtenay and across the Courtenay River without destroying established businesses and key portions of the K’omoks estuary.
The fight could pit the city against Project Watershed, K’omoks First Nations, business owners at the Courtenay Airpark and others over a proposed third crossing at 21st St., which would close the airpark, destroy portions of the estuary and have devastating effects on the Kus-kus-sum restoration.
The city is developing a much-needed transportation master plan that will guide City Councils over the next 20 years on where to invest in new infrastructure and how to meet the transportation needs of a growing population.
The plan is long overdue, and the failure of the city to develop such a plan in the past has limited the city’s options today to meet future transportation requirements.
Mayor Larry Jangula and some council members have downplayed a consultant’s report that recommends the 21st St. crossing as simply “a concept.” But Project Watershed and airpark business owners worry that a ho-hum attitude could result in the “concept” being enshrined in the master plan.
In a strong letter to the mayor and council, Project Watershed has said it will oppose any third crossing of the Courtenay River south of 17th St.
“This route, which would go through wetlands, across agricultural lands and creeks in order to hook up with Comox Road and then eventually Macdonald Road, is ill advised in the extreme,” wrote Project Watershed Chair Paul Horgen.
“The permanent damage that would be done to sensitive ecological areas, including Hollyhock Marsh, Glen Urquhart and Mallard Creeks, as well as Dike Slough by such a project, is unacceptable. This additional crossing would also affect those that enjoy the recreational opportunities afforded by the Courtenay Airpark Lagoon trails, Horgen said in his letter.
Horgen said the city should appreciate the sensitive habitat values of the area and the importance of conserving key eco-assets.
The city is a full partner with the nonprofit and K’omoks First Nation in the restoration of the old Fields Sawmill site, known as Kus-kus-sum.
In response, Mayor Jangula seemed to indicate there was no cause for alarm.
“I understand your concerns. This was simply a report on transportation plans with suggestions on where to place a third crossing,” Jangula wrote. “The City has no plans at this time to build another bridge. The idea is conceptual.”
That provided little comfort for Project Watershed.
“Thanks for your early response Mayor Jangula. Our deep concern is that this non-viable and ill-informed Option B crossing, being a conceptual report or not, will continue to persist in future planning documents, as these things have been shown to do in the past,” Horgen responded. “Our preference would be to see it removed entirely from this process.”
How was the recommendations developed?
According to a fact sheet published by city staff, the City has explored several alternative crossings of the Courtenay River beyond the 5th Street and 17th Street bridges since 2005.
Public feedback has indicated that growth pressures on the crossings, downtown and northeast areas, as well specifically Ryan Road and Highway 19A Bypass were areas of concern.
But most of the city’s options for a third crossing have been eliminated by a “combination of previous decisions and studies along with technical review in 2018 … due to impacts and/or changes to localized conditions (including 3rd Street, 6th Street, 8th Street, 11th Street, 13th Street, 19th Street, and 20th Street).”
That left crossing alternatives at 21st Street and 29th Street, but “preliminary investigations and stakeholder meetings resulted in eliminating 29th Street from further review largely based on the reduced traffic diversion that would be expected, as well as the significant costs and high environmental impacts.”
That last statement is ironic according to Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen.
“Project Watershed has worked hard to secure the old sawmill site to restore the shoreline of the Courtenay River. The option B flies in the face of all the city’s support of the Kus Kus Sum,” Bowen has said. “The wetland salt marsh ecosystem must be kept as a unit for connectivity of plant species and fish channels.”
Morris Perry, a spokesperson for the Courtenay Airpark, says the community benefits from the facility and supports it. He points to a May 2015 poll by the Comox Valley Record in which 93.7 percent of respondents said the Airpark should stay.
“Lots of votes here and, yes, lots of retired air force families that love the airpark and the green space it provides,” Perry wrote in a comment on Decafnation. “Oh yes, and no cost to the taxpayer as its 100 percent maintained by volunteers and of course all the jobs it provides working on aircraft from companies all over North America, not just Harbour Air.”
Courtenay city staff will present final recommendations for the transportation master plan in the fall. The current council will consider the plan, including any changes they want before final adoption.
However, future council members will decide to proceed with specific recommendations in the plan and fund them through the annual budgeting process.
FURTHER READING: City bridge proposal would harm airpark, Kus-kus-sum; Project Watershed, K’omoks First Nations to restore sawmill site
CVRD directors overlook their Regional Growth Strategy to expedite an application by 3L Developments to amend the RGS that would enable a 740-house project on the Browns and Puntlege rivers near Stotan Falls
BREAKING: In another surprising twist to the 3L Developments proposal for Stotan Falls, the July 17 Committee of the Whole vote that defeated a motion to consider the issue via the minor amendment process has been overturned. The motion has now passed on a 5-3 simple majority, and it will be recommended to the entire Comox Valley Regional District board later this month that the 3L application for an amendment to the Regional Growth Strategy be considered by the minor amendment process. When the full board votes, however, a two-thirds majority will be required.
Here is a statement from the CVRD legislative services team:
“In preparing the minutes for yesterday’s (July 17) Committee of the Whole meeting, Regional District staff considered the issue of whether the Committee’s vote on the process for proceeding with the amendment to the RGS proposed by 3L Development required a two-thirds majority or a simple majority vote for the Committee to recommend to the Board that it proceed as a minor amendment. Having reviewed the Regional District’s Procedure Bylaw, the RGS, and the applicable statutes, staff are of the view that there is an arguable issue as to the required vote. In the circumstances, and as the RGS makes clear that the determination of whether an amendment is a minor amendment must be made by the Board, staff have concluded that it is fair and reasonable to resolve the issue in favour of the applicant and have prepared the Minutes to reflect that the motion to proceed with the amendment as a minor amendment was carried on a simple majority vote of 5 to 3. By doing so, the matter will properly be on the agenda for the upcoming Board meeting and the Board will be in a position to fulfill its duty to determine, if the amendment is initiated, on a two-thirds majority basis whether the amendment will proceed as a minor amendment or, in default, as a standard amendment”
The original story follows …
Editor’s note: this article was amended July 23 to provide context for a quote by David Dutcyvich
For Comox Valley Regional District directors Bob Wells and Rod Nichol, expediency justifies circumventing a requirement of the board’s own Regional Growth Strategy.
Wells and Nichol were two of five directors to vote July 17 in favor of considering a proposal by 3L Developments to change the RGS as a minor amendment, rather than through the standard amendment process.
The two directors joined Larry Jangula, Ken Grant and Bruce Jolliffe to support a motion to proceed via the minor amendment process.
Erik Eriksson, Curtis Scoville and Barbara Price voted against the motion.
It was the second time for directors to vote on the issue. On July 10, they defeated the motion with only Grant and Jangula supporting it.
But the board had voted at that time after hearing incorrect information that a future unanimous vote in the minor amendment process would be required for the proposal to pass first reading. In fact, only a majority vote would be required at first reading.
So when the board’s Committee of the Whole reconvened a week later, on July 17, and voted again after discussing the corrected information and another hour of debate on the matter.
What’s surprising about the vote is that the CVRD’s Regional Growth Strategy clearly states the criteria that a proposed amendment must meet in order to be considered through the minor amendment process.
Area B Director Nichol asked CVRD staff to display section 5.2.3(a) of the RGS, which refers to the “criteria under which a proposed amendment to the RGS may be considered a minor amendment:”
It can be minor, if it is not regionally significant, contributes to the goals and objectives of the RGS, contributes to achieving the general principles in the RGS, and is not directly related to enabling a specific proposed development.
Nichol then went through each criterion and explained why, in his opinion, the 3L proposal did not meet any of them. But he voted in favor anyway.
Wells expressed similar difficulty with the criteria.
After the meeting Wells told Decafnation that he voted in favor of the minor amendment process anyway because he was satisfied the board “could still get a fulsome and meaningful” review of the 3L proposal “equivalent to the standard amendment” process.
Wells said his concern was the timeline for responses from other governments required under the standard amendment process, which “from my experience can be significant, and it seemed very unclear there would be any benefit.”
Nichol said the board has “inherited an issue that should have been decided a long time ago.”
“Yes, it did not meet all the requirements, but I firmly believe we can come up with a decision that conforms with the wishes of the people.”
Director Eriksson, who opposed the minor amendment process, said the 3L Developments proposal for 740 houses at Stotan Falls is a significant change to the Regional Growth Strategy.
“I’ve been critical of the RGS in the past,” he said. “But it reflects the aspirations of the public.”
The mayors of each municipality and the electoral area directors signed a protocol on “managing growth in the Comox Valley” in September of 2006. That lead to the development of the RGS, which was adopted in March 2011.
The Regional Growth Strategy is the culmination of considerable public input, negotiation among elected officials and feedback from local government staff through the board’s Technical Advisory and Steering committees.
But five directors, including Wells and Nichol, ignored that work for the sake of moving along consideration of the 3L Developments proposal a little bit quicker.
And 3L Developments has been trying to get CVRD approval for a long time.
It has been 11 years since 3L Development founder Dave Dutcyvich originally proposed to build a self-contained riverfront community on 550 acres between the Browns and Puntledge rivers, north of Courtenay.
His company has offered to donate 260 acres for a public park that includes access to the popular swimming area known as Stotan Falls.
3L spokesman Kabel Atwall said they have grown weary of the delays that have prevented them from going ahead with their project. Atwall said consulting other regional districts, as a standard amendment process requires, could “spin the whole process out of control.”
Dutcyvich also spoke to the board prior to its vote on July 17.
“There’s a lot of money tied up (in the project), and it has to come to an end some time,” he said. “To quote the mayor of Ottawa, ‘I don’t want the red tape, I want the red carpet’.”
Ministry officials explain and justify their Sackville Road groundwater extraction decision, saying no negative effects will result. But Merville residents question the ministry’s data and remain suspicious about negative effects on their wells
EDITOR’s NOTE: This story was updated at 11 a.m. July 17
Provincial government officials who reviewed and approved a groundwater extraction license for a proposed Sackville Road water bottling operation explained their decision-making process to a packed house at the Merville Community Hall last night (July 16).
Representatives of the Nanaimo Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) used a PowerPoint presentation to convince the crowd of several hundred people that the extraction of up to 10,000 litres per day from their aquifer won’t result in any negative effects.
The crowd wasn’t buying it.
The audience listened to the presentations with few interruptions and applauded politely for each speaker.
But when the question and answer period began, the mood turned raucous, with catcalls and loud and long cheering for citizens who pressed the ministry officials to defend what was called a “ridiculous” decision.
The ministry issued a groundwater license to Christopher Scott Mackenzie and Regula Heynck, who hope to create a commercial business by selling up to 3.65 million litres of water annually.
The Comox Valley Regional District has not approved the couple’s rezoning application, which is necessary to allow such an operation on the property.
Citizens questioned whether the ministry actually has reliable data about aquifer #408, because the studies it has relied on are 18 years old, and since then accelerated population growth and climate change have altered the facts.
Other citizens called most of the presentation irrelevant because it referred to the effects of the Sackville groundwater extraction on nearby drilled wells. But according to residents, 90 percent of the wells in the area are not drilled, but shallow.
Area C CVRD Director Edwin Grieve, MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard and the Sackville applicants attended the presentation.
How the decision was made
Pat Lapcevic, water protection section head for the ministry’s west coast region, talked through the science behind the extraction approval.
She showed charts of the ministry’s simulations that estimate that current groundwater use in the Merville aquifer is less than 20 percent of its annual recharge, which has been stable over the last 15 years based on data from an observation well located 12 km from the Sackville site.
The aquifer is recharged — a fresh input of water — by precipitation falling on the area and by snowmelt from the Beaufort Mountains.
She said the annual recharge is 34 million metres-cubed, or 34 trillion litres. The current use is estimated at six million metres-cubed, or 18 percent.
Lapcevic said pumping out 10,000 litres per day is “expected” to drawdown water levels in the aquifer by less than three centimetres. It represents less than one percent of the annual recharge.
Daryl Slater, a resource manager in FLNRORD’s Nanaimo office, reminded the audience that his ministry does not make policy, it only implements and monitors policy made by the Ministry of Environment and the BC Legislature.
Ticking off the considerations in reviewing a groundwater license application, Slater said the ministry could find no reason to deny it. They found no negative effects on anyone’s rights or to the wells of nearby users.
Slater said his office consulted with Island Health, local governments, the Ministry of Highways, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and archeology experts.
He said they also consulted with K’omoks First Nations, but would not reveal the content of those consultations, which he called confidential.
But K’omoks First Nations has publicly opposed the water bottling operation and the issuing of a water license, and told the FLNRORD ministry so in 2017 during the consultation process.
In a strong letter to the CVRD, KFN Chief Nicole Rempel explained their opposition.
Citizens wondered what was the point of ministry consultations if both the Comox Valley Regional District and K’omoks First Nation opposed granting a water license, and the ministry approved it anyway.
Citizens contradict FLNRORD
Bunky Hall, whose shallow well is the closest to the Sackville site, challenged ministry “estimations” of the effect of drilled wells on shallow wells.
He said when the Portuguese Creek Restoration Society drilled a well to keep the stream from going dry during the summer, his 16-foot deep shallow well went dry two days later.
When a water delivery service brought him water, they asked what was going on because they had never delivered water to that area before and all of a sudden they were getting multiple requests.
Ministry officials dismissed his experience saying there probably wasn’t any connection between the two events.
Lapcevic responded that shallow wells were sensitive to climate change and maybe it wasn’t the drilled, pumping well that caused his well to go dry.
“Most of what the ministry people presented tonight is irrelevant,” Hall told Decafnation after the meeting. “About 90 percent of the wells in the vicinity (of Sackville Road) are shallow wells. They only talked about the effects on drilled wells.”
The Technical Report summarty states that “the well (WTN 111987) is on the applicant’s property and is flowing artesian at roughly 15 gpm so a pump is not required at this time.”
Neither Slater or Lapcevic explained that if a pump is unnecessary how the aquifer could be confined and not affect shallow wells.
Bruce Gibbons, a member of the Merville Water Guardians and lives on ALR land about 300 metres from the Sackville Road site, said the ministry presented more detailed information than was contained in their original Technical Report.
“It appears they did significant work after the decision was made and after the opposition to their decision arose,” he told Decafnation.
Gibbons was privy to the original Technical Report because he filed an appeal to the FLNRORD decision. The ministry has not revealed the report to anyone else.
Even MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard was unable to get a copy of the original report.
And the ministry has still not responded to a Freedom of Information request for the report filed in March by Merville Organics farmer Arzeena Hamir.
Slater told the audience he didn’t know why the FOI request hadn’t been fulfilled. He said it’s “unfortunate” it takes so long.
Another speaker challenged the ministry’s assumptions about the stability of the aquifer.
She said the climate change is causing the Comox Glacier and other nearby glaciers to melt, which could be artificially inflating the aquifer’s recharge rate and its stability.
Lapcevic said the ministry is not seeing changes so far due to climate change, but the Sackville Road decision was based on the best data at the time.
Wayne Bradley recognized the FLNRORD ministry was bound by legislation in its decision-making process, so he called on MLA Leonard to champion a political movement to amend the Water Sustainability Act.
“We need to recognize that water is a common property,” he said. “Private profit on a sale of community property is not a beneficial use.”
Leonard left the meeting without responding to Bradley, but made a statement earlier that residents “should feel assured that I have posed these questions also.”
She said the Water Sustainability Act is new, and it’s moving water rights issues in the right direction.
“It takes time,” she said. “Be active, make your concerns known.”
FURTHER READING: Water bottling project raises aquifer concerns; Ministry stalls FOI request on Merville water bottling; “Unbelievable accusations” move water bottling to public hearing
CVRD directors will vote again — this time with corrected information on their Regional Growth Strategy minor amendment process — on whether to consider 3L Developments application to amend the RGS as a minor or standard matter. It’s not as confusing as it sounds
When the Comox Valley Regional District voted last week to defeat a motion to consider an amendment proposed by 3L Developments to the Regional Growth Strategy as a “minor” process, it was acting on incorrect information.
The correct information will be presented to the CVRD’s Committee of the Whole (COW) at 4 p.m.Tuesday, July 17, and the directors will vote again on whether the 3L application should be considered a “minor” amendment.
The COW was told at its July 10 meeting that a unanimous vote was required to pass first reading of a minor amendment bylaw. And, if the vote wasn’t unanimous, then the proposed amendment would automatically proceed by the standard process.
The standard process requires more robust consultation with stakeholders and neighboring governments and therefore takes longer. A minor amendment process is streamlined without any required consultations. The board could even decide not to hold a public hearing.
But staff discovered after last week’s vote that a unanimous vote is not required.
FURTHER READING: CAO’s memo to the directors
“While section 437(3) of the Local Government Act [RSBC, c. 1, 2015] does describe such a scenario (unanimous vote), the legislation also defers to the process contained in an RGS where the minor amendment process is defined,” wrote Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson in a memo to the board.
“The Comox Valley RGS in fact defines a minor amendment process and requires that voting on such amendment bylaws would follow normal procedures (meaning a simple majority on first reading is required for approval).” Dyson said.
See minor vs major comparison chart below
The regional district is taking extra care to be precise in its procedures and voting while considering the 3L Developments application. The company has been vocal and litigious in its criticism of the CVRD’s handling of their applications.
3L Developments sued the regional district in 2015 and won an order by the BC Supreme Court, which was later upheld by an appeals court, that the CVRD should have initiated a process to consider an amendment to the RGS, and was directed to do so.
The Committee of the Whole voted last week to initiate an amendment process. It was a unanimous decision.
The COW then voted on a motion by Ken Grant and seconded by Larry Jangula to proceed via the minor amendment (shorter) process. That motion was defeated with only Grant and Jangula voting in favor.
At Tuesday’s meeting (July 17), the COW will vote again whether to proceed via a minor amendment process, after staff clarifies that no unanimous vote is required.
It seems unlikely the resolution will pass given that only Grant and Jangula appear to support the 3L Developments application.
But this time directors will be voting with the correct information, which the CVRD hopes will close any opening for another lawsuit.
3L Development founder Dave Dutcyvich wants to build an entire riverfront community on 550 acres near Stotan Falls, where the Browns and Puntledge rivers converge. It would have 740 homes and a commercial center, and be self-contained with its own water and sewage treatment systems.
The CVRD board has decided in the past that the development doesn’t comply with its Regional Growth Strategy.