CVRD commission takes “historic” step toward Comox Valley-wide wastewater system

CVRD commission takes “historic” step toward Comox Valley-wide wastewater system

The Union Bay community rests on the verge of a major development explosion  |  George Le Masurier photo

CVRD commission takes “historic” step toward Comox Valley-wide wastewater system

By George Le Masurier

As the Comox Valley closes in on selecting a new overland route for conveying Courtenay and Comox wastewater to the treatment plant in Cape Lazo, and potentially upgrading the level of treatment it receives there, elected officials are also considering a first step toward using existing infrastructure for a more inclusive community-wide sewerage system.

The Comox Valley Regional District is currently in the final stages of developing a new, long-term Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP) for the existing infrastructure that will provide important ecological and financial benefits.

But at present that infrastructure only serves a portion of the Comox Valley.

New Liquid Waste Management Plan process to restart this summer

Despite its misnomer, the Comox Valley Sewage Commission that governs the Comox Valley Water Pollution Control Centre — commonly known as the Brent Road treatment plant — and the infrastructure to convey it there, only serves households in Courtenay, Comox, K’omoks First Nation and CFB Comox.

It is not a Valley-wide service.

Approximately a third of Comox Valley households rely on private, individual septic systems, which vary in age and effectiveness.

Over the next several decades, Union Bay Estates plans to develop nearly 3,000 new homes in a project already underway

In fast-growing areas, such as Union Bay — one of four designated settlement nodes in the Regional Growth Strategy — and Royston, areas where sewage and other wastewater is currently handled by septic systems, there is a compelling need to provide better and more reliable wastewater treatment.

Many of these private septic systems are old and some are failing. Homeowners can spend $30,000 or more to replace a poor system, so it’s often put off as long as possible.

But systems that are not functioning properly have the potential to pollute. Previous CVRD studies have shown that failing septic systems in Royston and Union Bay have contributed to fecal coliform contamination of Baynes Sound.

But now a new plan to be led by Darry Monteith, the CVRD’s Manager of Liquid Waste Planning in its Engineering Services branch, would shut down those private septic systems over time by connecting households to the existing Courtenay-Comox infrastructure.

The possibility of this new approach was made possible when Courtenay and Comox sewage commissioners reversed historical thinking to entertain the possibility of opening their closed-system to other areas of the Comox Valley.

Many, including Electoral Area A Director Daniel Arbour, see the decision as a historical moment.

Union Bay opens new water treatment plant

“This is a significant milestone for the sewage commission and the Regional Growth Strategy,” Arbour told Decafnation. “It’s a big step toward a Comox Valley-wide solution. Moving from septic systems to a community system feels momentous.”

Arbour said the important aspect of the decision is that the framework is now in place for connecting the Royston and Union Bay area to the sewerage system “so that if grants are available and the cost per household is reasonable, this proposal has a chance to be successful.”

Sewage commission Chair David Frisch, a Courtenay City councillor, told Decafnation that this new approach would be “a step toward Valley-wide collaboration in local government, an opportunity for Area A residents to benefit from sewer collection and treatment, a way to ensure sewer doesn’t leach into Baynes Sound and a partnership with KFN to support reconciliation and First Nation Rights.”

 

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

Since at least 2006, Island Health has consistently recommended a community sewerage system for the Royston-Union Bay area due to poor septic system performance and the number of complaints received.

A 2015 study by Payne Engineering Geology conducted after a dry winter found that up to 50 percent of the areas’ septic systems were failing, particularly in the Union Bay community. And the study suggested the rate would be higher during wet winter months.

By comparison, an earlier study by the same engineers found zero failures of private systems in the Cape Lazo area.

The large reservoir tank at the new Union Bay-Langley Lake water treatment plant on Mcleod Road that will improve access to drinking water and enable future developments.

The Payne study identified six main reasons that septic systems were failing:

1) small lots, many less than 2000 square metres;
2) a shallow winter water table, shallower than 45 cm (18 inches) in some areas;
3) inappropriate designs including, in some cases, drain field trenches set deeper than the water table;
4) undersized septic tanks and drain fields;
5) lack of maintenance; and,
6) ageing systems in need of repair or upgrade (some systems are about 50 years old).

Over the last 18 years, the CVRD has put forward three previous proposals to resolve these problems. All of them have failed over financial issues. And all of them would have created new infrastructure exclusive to the South Courtenay area, essentially creating two independent sewerage systems in the Comox Valley.

In 2002, residents rejected a plan they deemed too costly. In 2006, residents passed a referendum to construct a new system, but that initiative collapsed when necessary grant funding didn’t come through. In 2016, residents again rejected a South Sewer Project proposal because it was too expensive.

 

HOW CHANGE OCCURRED

It took three failed attempts, but the reality finally became clear: a stand-alone system for CVRD’s most southern communities was neither feasible or viable. New thinking was needed.

In early 2018, the South Sewer Select Committee, comprising electoral area A and C directors and K’omoks First Nation representation, pressed the sewage commission to analyze the possibility of receiving and treating wastewater from the Union Bay and Royston areas into their existing system. Former Electoral A Director Bruce Jolliffe brought the request forward.

In April of 2018, the commission, apparently warm to the idea, asked staff to study the impact that this new approach would have on their system.

New Area A Director Daniel Arbour (elected in October 2018 to replace Jolliffe, who retired) told Decafnation that serious behind-the-scenes discussions on this approach got underway in mid-2019.

Over the next six months, elected officials and KFN representatives talked through topics that ranged from what expenses Area A residents would pay to how K’omoks First Nation and Union Bay Estates would be engaged.

In February of 2020, the CVRD engineering staff reported back to the sewage commission with its analysis.

The report showed that the impact of adding wastewater from Union Bay and Royston would have minimal impact on existing infrastructure over the next decade.

That analysis concluded adding wastewater flows from the southern areas of the regional district would initially add only about three percent to four percent more wastewater flowing through the system and an estimated 10 percent to 12 percent more when Union Bay Estates and potential K’omoks First Nation developments in the southern area get fully underway.

The report also showed that the addition of wastewater flows from Area A would reduce the financial burden on all participants.

Arbour said everyone at the table could envision some benefit for their constituents.

He said Courtenay and Comox saw financial benefits. KFN saw the potential to connect any development they pursued on properties they own in the area. And Union Bay Estates, which plans nearly 3,000 new homes in the area, saw that the new sewer proposal could reduce their cost of future development.

On Feb. 11 the sewage commission passed a motion in-camera that stated, among other things, that the commission was open to receiving and treating the southern area’s wastewater if it proved feasible. The minutes of this meeting have since been made public.

 

AN IDEA PREVIOUSLY REJECTED

Connecting households in other areas to the existing Courtenay-Comox system is not a new idea. It has been proposed before.

In fact, it was on the table prior to the unsuccessful 2016 South Sewer Project proposal but was eliminated from consideration early. At the time, the elected officials who govern their closed system weren’t interested in the southern area issues. CFB Comox has one seat on the commission, Courtenay has three and Comox has three.

That meant the only option in 2016 was to once again propose some version of stand-alone wastewater treatment for the Royston-Union Bay area. But concerns about a sewer outfall into the oyster-growing waters of Baynes Sounds necessitated a long and expensive pipe crossing the Estuary and Comox sand bar to reach the Brent Road treatment plant.

That pushed costs beyond the reach of most residents. And it was one of the factors that caused the Village of Cumberland to pull out of the South Sewer Project and pursue plans to upgrade its own existing wastewater system, which is currently underway.

 

IS THE NEW PLAN AFFORDABLE?

It is not yet known how much this new approach will cost, nor how much each homeowner would have to pay to connect.

Over the summer, CVRD staff will gather financial data, explore the feasibility of grants and plan a public consultation process that might occur in the fall.

Director Arbour says whether the CVRD and KFN can obtain federal and provincial infrastructure grants will be key to making the proposal viable. And to that end, he’s thankful that everyone has managed to see a long-term benefit.

A sign pointing up Mcleod Road in Union Bay

He says the price will have to be less than the 2016 proposal, which pegged an individual homeowner’s cost from $25,000 and up, which was as much or more than the cost of installing a new private septic system.

“Whatever it comes in at, it has to make financial sense to individual residents. What is the public appetite and what value do they see for their money?” Arbour said. “It has to be affordable. That will ultimately define success.”

Arbour says he won’t over-promote the idea. If the numbers aren’t well below the last proposal for a stand-alone treatment plant, then he could let the idea sit for now.

“But the framework will still be in place to connect Area A households, which resolves environmental issues and addresses future development issues in this fast-growing part of the Comox Valley,” Arbour said.

From a strictly optimistic perspective and if significant grants were solidified in the next 12 months, Arbour believes the project could begin in a year or two.

Arbour praised K’omoks First Nation leadership during the discussions about the plan.

KFN already owns land in the area and could potentially own significant parcels in the former Sage Hills development area depending on the ongoing treaty negotiations with the provincial government.

 

OTHER ISSUES

Including more of the Comox Valley in the Courtenay-Comox wastewater system raises other issues, such as how the function will be governed.

The commission has historically been composed of only Courtenay and Comox elected officials because the system primarily serves them. KFN has been a customer without representation on the commission. CFB Comox is also a customer but has a seat on the commission due to some early investment by the Department of National Defence.

Accepting southern area wastewater — the cost of which would be paid by residents — would likely entail voting representation for the Electoral Area A director and KFN.

KFN was offered a non-voting seat on the board last fall. At the same time, following a staff report on governance, the Electoral Area B director was offered a non-voting seat at the commission table when dealing with issues affecting Area B residents.

And another issue for the proposal is how to best acquire public approval.

Sewage commissioners could choose to have staff write a new Liquid Waste Management Plan, a task that could delay construction for two years or more. Or it could proceed through an Electoral Assent Process, such as a public referendum that could take place early in 2021.

The Electoral Services Commission, comprising directors from areas A, B and C, will decide which public approval process to follow.

If the CVRD proceeds via an Electoral Assent Process and it is successful, construction could begin in 2022 and complete in 2023.

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$52.6 million Dementia Village planned on former St. Joseph’s General Hospital site

$52.6 million Dementia Village planned on former St. Joseph’s General Hospital site

Providence Living’s rendering of its planned Dementia Village in the Comox Valley

$52.6 million Dementia Village planned on former St. Joseph’s General Hospital site

By George Le Masurier

Island Health announced a project development agreement with Providence Living today to build and operate a 156-bed dementia village on the former St. Joseph’s General Hospital site.

“Our government continues to take action to ensure seniors, especially those with complex care needs, are receiving the best care possible,” Minister of Health Adrian Dix said in a press release this morning. “Friends and family should be confident knowing a loved parent or grandparent with dementia is in a safe environment, which is why I am pleased to see this project take another step towards meeting the needs of seniors in the Comox Valley.”

Read more about long-term care issues in the Comox Valley

Leah Hollins, Island Health Board Chair said she was”excited to see Vancouver Island’s first publicly funded dementia village be built in the Comox Valley.”

The dementia village will feature 148 publicly-funded long-term care beds and eight publicly funded respite beds. It will be built on the site of the existing The Views long-term care home and the former St. Joseph’s General Hospital. Once completed, the dementia village will replace the existing beds at The Views.

“We are very pleased to take this next step in fulfilling our mandate to provide innovative seniors care by building a long-term care home modelled on the concepts of a dementia village,” said Jane Murphy, President and CEO of Providence Living, and the former CEO of St. Joseph’s Hospital. “The Views at St. Joseph’s has a long history in Comox, and we are committed to seeking community input to ensure we best meet local needs. We look forward to continuing our work with Island Health to advance our shared goal of helping seniors in the Comox Valley live to their full potential.”

The dementia village will include:

• Small, self-contained households of 12 residents where each resident will have their own room and bathroom, leading to heightened infection control in a modern space
• A social model of resident-directed care for people with dementia
• Fostering free movement of people with dementia within a home and village setting
• Ensuring resident involvement in everyday activities within the household or the wider, secure village
• Focusing on individualized smaller groupings; cultural bonds, friendships, social activities
• Emphasizing daily life and sense of belonging – involving residents with food preparation, cooking, laundry
• Amenities for residents and community that include community gardens, child daycare, Island Health-funded adult day programs, and a community space, art studio, bistro and chapel

Construction of the dementia village is estimated to cost $52.6 million. Island Health will provide annual operational funding to meet the province’s target of 3.36 direct care hours per resident day. Providence Living has already begun the redevelopment planning process, with a goal of starting construction in spring or summer 2021.

“As a resident of the Comox Valley for the past 30 years, I’ve seen the increased need for seniors’ care, and I’ve heard from people looking for choices in long term care homes to meet their specific holistic needs,” said Ronna Rae Leonard, parliamentary secretary for seniors and MLA for Courtenay-Comox. “This innovative dementia village will help seniors experiencing dementia continue to have a good and dignified quality of life.”

Island Health and Providence Living will be consulting and engaging with stakeholders and the community as the project moves ahead.

Providence Living is a new faith-based, non-profit health care organization established by Providence Health Care to redefine our collective expectation of seniors’ care in British Columbia. The formation of Providence Living came from a deep desire to be part of a global movement to completely rethink and reimagine the experience of seniors and others in need of care, replacing care homes with genuine communities.

The organization was formerly known as Providence Residential and Community Care, and supported by St. Paul’s Foundation, Comox Valley Healthcare Foundation, and Auxiliary Society For Comox Valley Healthcare.

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Town Hall to explain how VIHA’s cuts have hurt North Island patient care

Town Hall to explain how VIHA’s cuts have hurt North Island patient care

Town Hall to explain how VIHA’s cuts have hurt North Island patient care

By George Le Masurier

For more than six years, Campbell River and Comox Valley doctors and other medical professionals have tried to stop the erosion of laboratory services performed on the North Island, but both the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the Ministry of Health have continued to allow the transfer of critical lab functions to Victoria area doctors.

“​It’s time for the community to speak up – for the services that we were promised when the new North Island hospitals opened, for our doctors and lab staff, for all of us,” said Barbara Bailey, a spokesman for Citizens for Quality Health Care.

READ MORE: Our series on pathology services in the North Island

To get the BC healthy ministry’s attention, the citizens group has organized a Town Hall meeting from 2 pm to 4 pm at the Campbell River Sportsplex. They hope people will attend to show their support, share experiences and sign a petition that demands the return of onsite clinical pathologists’ services to the Campbell River Hospital laboratory.

Speakers at the Town Hall will include Dr. Chris Bellamy, one of the Comox Valley’s three General Pathologists who still do clinical pathology onsite at the Comox Valley Hospital. But VIHA (also known as Island Health) also wants to take all clinical pathologists’ services from the Comox Valley Hospital laboratory and move that work to the same group of Victoria doctors.

That happened to Dr. Aref Tabarsi, one of two General Pathologists in Campbell River.

​After VIHA moved clinical pathologists’ services from the Campbell River hospital to Victoria, there has been a significant delay in test results, especially for urgent cases, which has had a negative impact on patient care and clinical outcomes.

It has also created a breakdown in working relations because hospital lab staff and local doctors can no longer consult with the pathologists on site to provide optimum services to patients.

“I will absolutely guarantee that this shift will result in the further erosion of technologists locally and will be bad for patient care in this area,” said Dr. Chris Bellamy, who has practiced general pathology in the Comox Valley for 30 years.

​Despite letters of support for reinstating onsite clinical pathologists’ services to Campbell River laboratory technologists and assistants, as well as 70 North Island general practice physicians, have written letters detailing the problems centralization has caused for their work and for patient care, and expressing their support for reinstating onsite clinical pathologists’ services.

But the Vancouver Island Health Authority has so far dismissed their concerns.

VIHA has not responded to the laboratory staff or doctors. The Ministry of Health has not respond to the Campbell River City Council or the Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital Board, both of who have asked for the return clinical pathology services to the Campbell River Hospital.​ ​

“​Come to the Town Hall on February 9. Learn from the senior pathologists at the Campbell River and Comox Valley Hospitals, lab staff and doctors in the community, share your own experiences.,” Bailey said.

​For more information, call Citizens for Quality Health Care: 250-287-3096 or Council of Canadians Campbell River Chapter: 250-286-3019.

 

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Maps will detail impact of sea level rise on Valley coastline

Maps will detail impact of sea level rise on Valley coastline

Flooding of the Courtenay Flats during previous heavy rainfalls

Maps will detail impact of sea level rise on Valley coastline

By George Le Masurier

It could be argued that climate change hasn’t yet impacted the daily lives of people in the Comox Valley. Yes, it has been drier for longer periods and a year ago the smoke from forest fires dimmed our skies and filled our lungs. The Comox Glacier is disappearing before our eyes.

These are minor events, however, compared to the torrential rains, flooding, droughts and intense super-hurricanes inflicting damage to other parts of the world.

But the serious consequences of climate change will soon reach our idyllic part of the world in the form of sea level rise.

Sea levels have risen by almost eight inches since the 1890s, an annual rate of about 0.06 inches per year, an amount barely noticeable except to those paying close attention.

But the rate of sea level rise has accelerated to 0.14 inches per year since 2006, and scientists predict it will continue to speed up as global temperatures climb.

The latest dire warnings suggest sea level could rise by as much as 1.3 feet by 2050 and up to 8.2 feet (2.5 metres) by 2100, depending on the success of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 

FOCUS ON COMOX VALLEY IMPACTS

To determine how rising sea levels will affect the Comox Valley coastline, the Comox Valley Regional District is undertaking detailed mapping of the regions 200 kilometres of coastline, from the Oyster River to Fanny Bay, including Denman and Hornby islands.

With a $500,000 grant from the National Disaster Mitigation Program, the CVRD hired Kerr Wood Leidal consulting engineers to assess the coastline from a geological perspective. They will produce maps and supporting technical data for five scenarios of sea level rise in the years 2030, 2050, 2100, 2150 and 2200.

The report will be a helpful planning guide for emergency management as well as for new development. And, the information will inform the CVRD how to make corresponding policy and regulatory changes, such as floodplain construction levels and setbacks.

The data will also help the CVRD predict how much flooding will occur and how long each flooding event will last.

“Sea level rise is coming whether we think it is or not and governments are being asked to act,” Alana Mullaly, the CVRD’s senior manager of the Regional Growth Strategy and sustainability, told Decafnation. “This will create a lot of hard conversations.”

With rising sea levels pouring over portions of our coastline, how close to the foreshore should building be allowed? Where should local governments put new infrastructure? How should local government manage its assets, such as parkland and archaeological sites? Who will pay for the restoration or relocation of assets?

Sea levels most certainly will have an effect on future land use planning.

“The CVRD may get a request to put a park here or a development there, but that property may be underwater in 20 years,” Mullaly said. “I’m thinking about the weighing of values that we, as a community, will need to do in dealing with climate change.”

 

RICHER DATA FOR ENGINEERS

To do this coastal flood mapping, the consultants will use LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) to survey land remotely and produce high resolution topographic contours. The province has already flown LIDAR equipment over our area to collect the raw survey data and the consultants will process the data for use in the development of hundreds of maps.

Right now, communities that do not have coastal flood mapping generally rely on the requirements set by the province, which are based on mapping from the 1970s and 1980s.

Those maps did not account for any sea level rise, and neither does the current CVRD floodplain bylaw.

But by professional code, once engineers know something they have to consider it, and they have been taking sea level rise into account based on limited information. This report will give engineers richer local data.

Coastal flood mapping will put the CVRD in compliance with the Coastal Food Hazard Guideline, which is the main resource for engineers designing construction projects.

 

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE PUBLIC

After the report is delivered by March 31 next year, the CVRD will hold public engagement events to inform citizens of its findings, which will ultimately lead to
recommendations for bylaws and other relevant regulations and guidelines.

“Sometimes it has been difficult for citizens to pinpoint the source or motivation when government rules change,” Mullaly said. “This won’t be one of them. This is not an arbitrary change. Sea level rise is coming.”

 

HOW HIGH WILL SEAS RISE?

The provincial government’s official prediction for sea level rise is a half-metre by 2050, one metre (just over three feet) by 2100 and two metres (about 6.5 feet) by 2200.

But that’s too low by at least half, according to recent scientific studies and the consulting engineers who did a similar mapping project for the City of Campbell River.

Northwest Hydraulic Consultants told Campbell River that the province’s projection “might be conservative.” One of the firm’s engineers, Grant Lamont, said it depends on future greenhouse gas emissions and how quickly ocean warming expands.

The loss of polar ice will accelerate in the second half of the century, Lamont said, and force people to cope with larger changes in shorter periods of time.

He recommended planning for two metres of sea level rise by 2100, as the states of California and New York have done.

Campbell River’s report suggests flooding will threaten downtown streets and buildings, and that local governments purchase coastal properties and turn them into pre-flooded parkland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLIMATE REFUGEES RETREAT FROM COASTLINES

There will be 13 million climate refugees in the United States by 2100. This report tells the story of a Lousiana town being relocated before sea level rise makes it uninhabitable. It portends to be the first of many retreats for existing coastlines.

The tiny village of Newtok near Alaska’s western coast has been sliding into the Ninglick River for years. As temperatures increase — faster there than in the rest of the U.S. — the frozen permafrost underneath Newtok is thawing. Now, in an unprecedented test case, Newtok wants the federal government to declare these mounting impacts of climate change an official disaster. Villagers say it’s their last shot at unlocking the tens of millions of dollars needed to relocate the entire community.

 

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Smit Field owners, neighbours, CVRD rural directors clash over testing of drag racing cars

Smit Field owners, neighbours, CVRD rural directors clash over testing of drag racing cars

Dan Annand a co-owner of Smit Field on Forbidden Plateau Road  |  George Le Masurier photos

Smit Field owners, neighbours, CVRD rural directors clash over testing of drag racing cars

By George Le Masurier

Does the Comox Valley want to allow the testing and tuning of drag racing cars in a rural residential neighborhood along Forbidden Plateau Road next to Nymph Falls Nature Park? Directors of the Comox Valley Regional District’s three rural electoral areas will answer that question at their next meeting, on Dec. 9.

But it won’t be an easy decision. The case involves neighbourhood concerns about noise, pollution and forest fires, a defiant property owner and a federally regulated airport.

For the past three years, the Vanisle Airfield Society Inc. has tested and tuned their drag racing cars at a 50-acre Forbidden Plateau Road property owned by Dan Annand and Kevin Griessel in contravention of Comox Valley Regional District zoning bylaws.

The property is zoned RU20, which allows several non-residential uses, such as sawmills and dog kennels, but does not allow drag racing or the testing of drag racing cars.

However, the property also contains Smit Field, a private airport registered by Transport Canada with 1,200 feet of concrete runway where the Vanisle Society has been holding its test and tune events.

The CVRD shut down the car club’s activity this summer after some area residents complained.

Now the society has applied for a three-year temporary use permit that would allow up to 50 car owners to test their racing cars over three days, three times per year beginning next May.

Vanisle Society spokesperson Ken Pederson says there is no other site with comparable amenities for car owners on Vancouver Island. Members of the society just “want to have fun,” he says, and tune their cars before entering races.

That hasn’t swayed concerned residents, who say they initially complained about the noise because the cars reach high decibel levels that they say can be heard at homes up to two kilometers away.

But since hearing from the Smit Field owners, and suffering social media harassments from members or supporters of the drag car society, the residents now fear the property owners plan to grow the site into a major event venue and that the drag racing car events will become permanent.

Temporary use permits can be issued for up to three years, and are renewable.

And that, they say, intensifies additional ongoing concerns about air and ground pollution and forest fires.

But principal owner Dan Annand told Decafnation this week that he has no plans to create more large-scale public events on his property, although he does currently host Jeepapalooza, which in its second year last summer drew 700 owners of off-road vehicles.

And if the CVRD Electoral Services Commission doesn’t approve the Vanisle Society’s temporary use permit, a defiant Annand says he might continue to allow the testing of drag cars anyway because he believes the regional district doesn’t have the authority to regulate how he uses his property.

Annand has also hinted that he might turn Smit Field back into a “full-blown airport,” with fly-in gatherings for pilots that could attract more participants and make more noise and pollution than either the drag car testing and Jeepapalooza events.

Plus, he says, he would stop allowing other public service uses of his property.

The following five sections break down this complicated story:

  1. What is Smit Field
  2. Why have neighbors complained
  3. Who is the Vanisle Airfield Society
  4. Dan Annand’s frustrations
  5. What is the CVRD recommending

 

Aerial view of Smit Field courtesy of Transport Canada

WHAT IS SMIT FIELD?

Bert Smit and Dan Annand, who shared a love for flying, have co-owned the 50-acre Smite Field property for many years. Smit owned the property as early as 1977 and obtained classification as a registered aerodrome through Transport Canada sometime in the early 1980s.

The airfield features a grass runway 66 feet wide by 2,663 feet long at the base of the Beaufort Mountains forming Forbidden Plateau and Mt. Washington.

In recent years, Annand has covered 36 by 1,200 feet of the runway with concrete. The drag racing cars use roughly 325 feet of it to test single cars and sometimes side by side.

Smit died on March 3, 2010 when his homebuilt two-seater Jodel aircraft crashed in a forested area just below Forbidden Plateau. Witnesses to the crash say Smit was doing acrobatic maneuvers when a wing appeared to break away.

The airfield is rarely used. As a private aerodrome, pilots must call Annand by phone to request permission to land. Annand has two hangars on the property, one that houses his own Cessna 180 taildragger airplane.

But when Smit and Annand, and others, used the airfield more frequently, Annand said “there were a lot more noise complaints” than there has been recently about testing drag racing cars.

As a result of those previous complaints, Annand changed the circuit pattern for arriving aircraft to approach the runway from over the Puntledge River rather than over residential areas.

A media relations officer for Transport Canada told Decafnation that the federal agency “does not issue an approval to the aerodrome but rather validates the data provided so that it can be published in the Canada Flight Supplement,” which is information for pilots.

Transport Canada does not issue approvals to the aerodrome on the use of runways. It is the responsibility of the aerodrome operator to ensure that the aerodrome is operated safely and to notify Transport Canada of any changes to the flight supplement information.

Annand has not yet notified Transport Canada that he hard-surfaced a portion of the listed runway with concrete or that he plans to extend it to 3,000 feet.

Burned rubber from drag car testing on the Smit Field runway

WHY NEIGHBORS HAVE COMPLAINED

Residents along Forbidden Plateau Road started complaining to the Comox Valley Regional District by Sept. 16, 2017. They say the noise from revving high-performance drag racing engines is deafening in Nymph Falls park and at homes within about two kilometers of the airfield.

Dylan DeGagne was the first neighbor to go public with a complaint. He told the Comox Valley Record last May that while paddleboarding on the Puntledge River near the BC Hydro dam at Comox Lake, “he could hear the cars roaring.”

DeGagne started a petition on Change.org to stop the activity. He immediately became the target of social media intimidation. He has now sold his house and is in the process of transferring to Victoria.

But other residents who spoke to Decafnation on the promise of anonymity, say they have also complained to the regional district. All of these sources purchased their properties before the dragster testing began. They say the noise since 2017 has affected their ability to enjoy their properties and potentially their long-term property values.

They have requested anonymity because of the threats issued through social media posts by either members or supporters of the Vanisle Airfield Society.

Screenshots of two previously public, now private Facebook pages include this post: “Yea, people complain its (sic) too loud. The noise isn’t going away, because I’ll make continuous passes on there (sic) street at 2am if need be, so get over the noise.”

And this reply: “I’ll just put a 353 Detroit in the box of my truck running flat out all night lol.”

Residents say they knew before they purchased their properties that there was an airfield nearby, but not that testing of drag racing cars would occur.

Their complaints include adverse market value impacts to their property, safety concerns to cyclists along Forbidden Plateau Road, forest fire risk, negative impacts to users of Nymph Falls park and wildlife, contravention of CVRD zoning bylaws and “an incongruence with climate change policies” (unnecessary pollution and carbon emissions from fossil fuels).

They say during the most recent Jeepapalooza event, some of the 700 campers set off fireworks during one of the driest periods of the summer.

“Why should we accept the devaluation of our homes, and the risk, to support other people’s hobbies,” one resident told Decafnation.

The concerned residents don’t see the Jeepapalooza and drag car testing events as separate issues.

“It’s not separate for us,” a resident told Decafnation. “The point is, where is this headed? The land owner has poured more than $200,000 into this property without without any approvals. He’s not doing it for three weekends a year that he says doesn’t generate any income for him. There’s a longer-term vision here.”

And they dispute Annand’s claim that the drag car testing events are just for his friends.

“Our complaint was filed only after we discovered that the test and tune events were being advertised on two Facebook pages, totalling more than 3,000 followers.

“This is not strictly a family and friends event,” the source told Decafnation. “All Vancouver Island and BC drag car owners now think there’s a drag strip in the Comox Valley.”

And they have no confidence so far that the CVRD can control these events through a temporary use permit. The regional district does not have a bylaw compliance officer to monitor such permits. It relies on a complaint-driven system.

The concerned neighbours do not understand the purpose of the CVRD’s recommendation to approve a one-year temporary use permit. The staff report suggests that one year would serve as a trial and give staff time to evaluate the events.

“But there’s no objective criteria mentioned how they would evaluate the events,” a resident said. “We already know it doesn’t work. What will they do, planners will drive around in their cars to see how loud it is?”

Concerned neighbors generally feel the CVRD recommendation disregards their concerns, the environment, the park and existing zoning bylaws.

 

Facebook Post showing cars lined up for testing at Smit Field

WHO IS THE VANISLE AIRFIELD SOCIETY

Comox Valley and Vancouver Island drag racing enthusiasts say they just want a safe place to test and tune their cars.

The Vanisle Airfield Society was formed in January of 2015 after approaching the co-owner of the Smit Field, Dan Annand. They formed the society in order to get insurance coverage, and are the official applicant for the temporary use permit.

“We want to do it right. We’re trying to make it safe for everybody,” Ken Pederson, a society spokesperson told Decafnation.

Prior they located at Smit Field, owners used to test their cars on the Comox Logging Road near Royston or on the lower sections of the Mt. Washington road, which was neither legal or safe.

The group has since purchased an expensive set of lights of the type used to start drag racing events and timing equipment to provide instant, printed feedback on driver response times.

In drag racing, a set of lights similar to street lights illuminate down from red to yellow to green. The driver to most quickly accelerate his car has a considerable advantage.

According to Pederson the test and tune events are really about tuning the driver, not the car. Smit Field is not used for drag racing where cars and drivers compete against each other side-by-side.

“Ninety-nine percent of drag races are won or lost at the starting line,” Pederson told Decafnation this week. “That’s why we need a place to practice. It’s more about tuning the drivers’ reaction time.”

Pederson says there are no other places to practice on Vancouver Island that appeal to his group of members. They tried Saratoga Speedway but the straightaway was too short for the faster cars and they could only get five hours of time. It takes two to three hours to set up their lights and timing equipment, so there wasn’t enough time to warrant the cost of renting the track.

And the Island’s other drag racing sites like Port McNeill and Western Speedway near Victoria don’t allow test and tune events. Drivers say they need the practice team to justify expensive trips to drag races, especially those off the Island.

Pederson says 35 of the 42 cars owned by members that might practice at Smit Filed are street legal.

And, he says, a suggestion to reduce the tuning events at Smit Field to one day, rather than three, won’t appeal to the society’s members. The society charges $700 for an annual membership, which pays for the portable toilets and food sold during events as well as the debt for purchasing the lighting equipment.

“Three one-day events don’t make it worthwhile,” he said.

Pederson said the society hopes to purchase carbon credits to offset the burning of fossil fuels before the CVRD’s electoral directors meet Dec. 9 to decide the issue.

“We’re trying to show we’re not a bunch of hillbillies. We want to do this properly,” he said.

Smit Field co-owner Dan Annand at the site of salmon habitat restoration on the Puntledge River near his property

PROPERTY OWNER DAN ANNAND

Dan Annand has co-owned the Forbidden Plateau Road property for over 20 years. He originally partnered with owner Bert Smit. When Smit died in 2010, Annand took on a new partner, neighbor Kevin Grissel, whose name appears on the title.

Annand says he’s not trying to become another Saratoga Speedway.

“It’s just friends having fun. I could do it every weekend if I wanted,” he told Decafnation this week. “Because of the hassle with the CVRD, I might invite a few friends up here with cars anyway, whether it (temporary use permit) passes or not.”

He says many of the drag car owners in the Vanisle Airfield Society are friends, whose parents were friends with his parents. And they share a love of racing, which he used to do 50 years ago, and flying. Three of the car owners own airplanes.

Annand is a member of the pioneering Piercy family and his wife’s family, the Picketts, were early settlers on Denman, Hornby and Cumberland.

“I probably have 500 relatives in Courtenay alone,” he says.

He doesn’t charge the drag car society or the Jeepapalooza organizers any rental fee. He has offered his property for free as long as the groups raise money for charity.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “If they didn’t raise money for charity they wouldn’t be allowed out here.”

Between the testing of drag racing cars and Jeepapalooza, Annand says $80,000 has been donated to cancer-related non-profits in the last two years, including sending a family to Hawaii through the Help Fill A Dream Foundation, and donations to the local Hospice Society.

But he says the airfield could make money by promoting fly-in events to pilots around BC and beyond.

“If this doesn’t go through, I’ll hard surface the whole runway and start having airshows and fly-ins,” he said.

Annand says the increased air traffic would cause more noise and more pollution than a whole year of drag car testing.

“The stupid part is that the drag cars burn on a 14-1 air to gas ratio. They burn clean. Aircraft burn lead-based fuel. One plane releases more carbon than all the cars on an entire weekend,” he said. “One airshow here would create 10 times more pollution in the air than a whole year of cars.”

And he disputes the claim that any of the events have exploded fireworks. There are two water tanker trucks on the property, so he believes the risk of a fire is next to nothing.

Annand also points to all of the other benefits he offers free of charge to the Comox Valley community.

He allows the military search and rescue squadron to have their year-end party on the property, usually landing a helicopter. He allows the Courtenay Rod and Gun Club and the Department of Fisheries to use his property to stage gravel for a Puntledge River salmon enhancement project in an area called Reach B.

Mountain biking groups use his property to access trails up to the top of the Forbidden Plateau, and have recently rebuilt a bridge using Smit Field access. Mountain search and rescue teams use his site for marshalling and as a launch point for training exercises.

Annand also built a parking lot for access to Barbers Hole, and says he plows snow from neighbors driveways every winter.

“If this TUP gets turned down, all of that goes away,” he said. “The skinny of it is, I’ll stop all public access and all the benefits and the donations to charity go away. Shame on the three neighbors who can shut this all down. The CVRD should represent the majority. It’s no longer a democracy.”

Annand said he went door-to-door asking neighbors about the drag car noise. He says 91 people said they were in favor of it, and some even help volunteer during the events. He believes only three or four neighbors have complained.

Annand says he’s “done just about everything we can to reduce noise.”

“It’s noisy, no question. But we’re asking for 24 hours total per year. If you can’t put up with that then … really?” he said. “I’ve just about had enough of the CVRD. If it doesn’t pass, I’ll go to a full-blown airport. I’m going to do that anyway.”

 

CVRD’S RECOMMENDATION

Since notifying Annand and the Vanisle Airfield Society that they were contravening Comox Valley Regional District bylaws, planners have met with him and representatives of the Vanisle Airfield Society, and separately with a group of concerned neighbors.

At the Nov. 4 Electoral Services Commission, CVRD staff presented a report that recommended approving a temporary use permit for one year that would allow three, three-day test and tune events for a maximum of 30 cars and 15 campsites.

Staff have recommended allowing car owners to only practice from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday and 10.30 to 3.30 on Sunday.

The report notes that the test and tune events comply with CVRD’s noise bylaw, which restricts hours but does not regulate decibel levels.

The report said the bylaw compliance department did a full review and determined the past drag car test and tune events were not lawful.

Staff said that noise from the events could not be controlled, but the conditions of the permit were designed to minimize neighbourhood disruption.

 

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