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:
- What is Smit Field
- Why have neighbors complained
- Who is the Vanisle Airfield Society
- Dan Annand’s frustrations
- 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.”
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.