November 15 marked the midway point of the current four-year term for municipal councils in British Columbia.
Last week, The Record news team compiled a mid-term report of the three municipalities – Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland. This week, The Record offers an overview of the respective areas within the Comox Valley Regional District.
Area A: The good, the bad and the UBID
Bruce Jolliffe’s tenure as Area A director started in the midst of a heated debate on Hornby Island: the issue of a new fire hall.
Two months into his term, an alternative approval process was conducted to seek electoral approval for a $1.6 million loan to fund the project.
Hornby voters defeated the motion, when 25 per cent took the time to respond to the AAP. As per rules of an AAP, a minimum of 10 per cent voter disapproval had to be reached to force the question to a referendum.
The ensuing referendum was held in April 2015, and Hornby residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the hall. The vote was 616 in favour; 126 opposed. The AAP drew 212 negative votes.
“We found out that they weren’t against getting a new fire station, it was just the process that they didn’t like,” said Jolliffe. “It was a complicated situation, but it produced good results.”
Construction of the new fire station began in the spring of 2016 and Jolliffe expects it to be open by spring of 2017.
The next referendum in Jolliffe’s area did not go nearly as favourable for the CVRD.
The South Sewer Project, which was proposed to establish a service to provide a new centralized wastewater collection system and water resource recovery facility for residents within Royston and Union Bay including Kilmarnock, was soundly defeated.
Of the 970 votes cast, 686 (71 per cent) voted against the project.
“The voters spoke,” said Jolliffe. “It’s a difficult situation, trying to put in a new sewer system into such a low-density area. It’s an expensive proposition, even with all the funding we had available. But I guess the voters didn’t see it the same way we did.”
The SSP had an estimated taxpayer cost of between $1,800 and $2,000 per year, for 30 years.
Homeowners with failing septic systems will have to address the situation in due time, but all those with new homes also have new septic systems. Voting in favour of a project that would call for them to remove their new septic systems was going to be a tough sell. In the end, the voters weren’t buying.
“The homeowners who do have newer, or properly maintained systems, they aren’t really problematic. But there are people who may not even be aware that their systems are broken…”
So where does the CVRD go from here?
“We are still working on a ‘Plan B,’ “ said Jolliffe. “We are rethinking it, and we will take another approach. But in the short term, I don’t think we will be able to get the kind of funding we had in place. So we are definitely going back to the drawing board.”
With the good and the bad covered, that leaves one area: Union Bay.
The ongoing battle between residents in the Union Bay Improvement District has reached unprecedented proportions.
Shortly after South Sewer Project was voted down, three of the five UBID trustees walked away from their positions on the board (due to issues unrelated to the SSP referendum), leaving the improvement district in a state of limbo.
Speculation is the improvement district will dissolve and Union Bay will return to the CVRD fold.
When asked about the state of UBID, Jolliffe was hesitant.
“I prefer not to comment too much, but there are definitely still challenges,” he said. “There is a process and we [CVRD] have to stay at arm’s length until such a time that a decision is made by UBID and the province.”
Overall, Jolliffe has been happy with the past two years.
“The last two years have been challenging at times, but there have been rewards. So on balance, I do find that people have been very, very supportive of the work being done.”
Area B: People’s choice
Two years ago, Rod Nichol gained more votes than any other CVRD candidate, in any of the three areas. His 1,145 votes accounted for 69 per cent of the popular vote in Area B, with then-incumbent Jim Gillis as the only other candidate.
Nichol has been the “people’s champion” ever since.
His big battle, and that of his constituents, has been the No. 2 pump station and its proposed Beech Street location.
He promises to fight the good fight until the end.
“That’s been a burr under my saddle for a long time,” said Nichol. “Often a select bunch of people make decisions that affect a bunch of other people, without really consulting with them. The No. 2 pump station is an example.
“I have a lot of trouble with the sewage commission being able to just do as they please, in an area that has no representation. There just doesn’t seem to be any movement there whatsoever. They’ve got their agenda… and they are going to build it on Beech Street. At least for now they are. But the people there are going to fight tooth and nail right to the end.”
Another battle that has been brewing since before Nichol arrived is the tiered water rates.
“They are unacceptable,” he said, of the rates. “It’s very, very unfair. And to just do that to the rural customers, that’s just wrong. So while I am in office, I will fight for my constituents.”
A couple of positive infrastructure developments include the recently announced Kin Beach upgrade, and plans for establishing a dedicated walking path from Courtenay to Comox along Dyke Road.
“Hopefully we will see some movement on that (project) this year,” said Nichol.
Area C: Fire infrastructure
The big news from Edwin Grieve’s constituency was the Mount Washington fire services referendum, which passed earlier this year.
“We will be putting out an RFP on the building and at the lightning pace of all the politics, we will probably be there by next fall,” said Grieve.
The fire protection service will cover all residential, commercial and recreational areas at Mount Washington.
“This was such an important decision, because there’s multi-millions of dollars worth of infrastructure that would just be wiped out on a hot day with brisk westerly winds, or whatever.”
Since 2009, four structures on Mount Washington have been destroyed by fire. While the Mount Washington fire station issue has officially moved forward, it is not the only fire station issue in Grieve’s Area.
There have been ongoing discussions regarding the establishment of a satellite fire station midway between the Courtenay and the Oyster River fire halls, to service the areas of Tsolum/Farhnam and Merville, which fall short of the eight-kilometre distance from a fire hall that classifies them as a “protected” or a “semi-protected” area as defined by the Fire Underwriters of America.
“Talk about referendums, we had an open house in Merville on that topic and they (homeowners) were all ‘where do we sign?’ We had over 60 people who were all gung-ho at that meeting so it was nice to be on the right side of an initiative.”
Grieve said homeowners recognize it would take a tax increase to fund any such project, but the subsequent decrease in home insurance (as a “protected” or a “semi-protected” area) will offset a large portion of those costs.
Time frame for any movement on that subject is unknown.
“One thing I have learned in eight years is you can push as hard as you want on an initiative, it doesn’t move any faster,” said Grieve. “But in a perfect world, it would be great if we were going to go after an RFP on a fire hall design for Mount Washington that we contract for two fire halls.”
As an entire regional district, the Comox Valley has seen some substantial growth in infrastructure.
The hospital project (including the Campbell River hospital) is still on time and under budget, and the curling centre upgrades have been well received.
The $105 million water filtration project is moving ahead, as is the landfill project.
Jolliffe, who is also the chair of the CVRD board, said the board has been operating as a relatively cohesive unit to this point.
“I think it has come together reasonably well,” he said. “You will always have your differences, with different personalities, but we are generally working pretty well.”