Christopher Scott McKenzie, far left, in the gallery at Monday’s meeting. Photo by Scott Strasser

Merville water bottling proposal heading to public hearing

A contentious business proposal in Merville will be going to a public hearing later this summer.

The Comox Valley Regional District’s electoral area services committee (EASC) made the vote Monday regarding a rezoning application for a proposed water bottling business in Merville. The business proposal has garnered backlash throughout the small rural community and media attention on Vancouver Island.

Despite CVRD staff’s recommendation to deny the rezoning application based on the flurry of public backlash that it’s received, EASC chair and Area C director Edwin Grieve made the motion to move to a public hearing instead.

Read More: CVRD to vote on rezoning for Merville water bottling operation

He said he made the motion to address concerns from the applicant that the process has been biased against him from the start.

“The way regional districts are constructed and the way the Local Government Act is laid out, every proponent has the right for his day in court or his day in the sun,” said Grieve.

“In this instance, you could hear clearly that [the applicant] was concerned with the process being flawed. The only way to allay those fears is to move forward with a public hearing. That will afford everyone the chance to weigh in on the matter.”

Last November, Merville residents Christopher Scott McKenzie and his wife Regula Heynck received a conditional water licence from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD). The water licence allows the family to extract up to 10,000 litres of groundwater per day from their property’s well on Sackville Road.

Read More: Proposal to bottle water in Merville receives public backlash

The family had said they would bottle the water in large five-gallon jugs and sell it via home delivery throughout the Comox Valley.

To justify their plans, the family touted the high alkalinity (pH 8.1) of their well water, saying the unique pH balance provides health benefits. McKenzie was also vocal that the community had been fed misinformation about the scope of his proposal.

McKenzie again defended his application on Monday and claimed the process regarding his proposal has been skewed against him. He also issued a report to the committee from the provincial government’s chief hydrologist that he felt should assuage the public’s concerns, though the report was not part of the public’s documents.

“You talk about there being a lack of support for the use. We can identify over the last 14 years an increase of 2.3 centimetres per year in this 147 square kilometre aquifer,” said McKenzie. “That 2.3-centimetre increase that first went in there 14 years ago equates to 338 million litres of water that no one even knew went in there.

“That 2.3 centimetres represents 92 years of our water extraction.”

Farmers and other residents in Merville and Area C — and the K’omoks First Nation — disagreed. The CVRD’s staff report for Monday’s meeting included dozens of emails from opposed residents and roughly 30 people were in the gallery at Monday’s EASC meeting.

Critics claim the extraction of 10,000 litres of groundwater per day would dry up their local aquifer — which local farmers said already experiences droughts in the summers — and that it would be unfair for one family to profit from a shared resource.

Opponents also claimed the province did not sufficiently consult stakeholders before approving the water licence.

In April, a group called the Merville Water Guardians formed to further protest the idea and organize a letter-writing campaign against it.

The group’s founder, Bruce Gibbons, was among the gallery members on Monday. He said he was surprised and disappointed with Grieve’s motion, considering staff’s recommendation was to turn down McKenzie’s rezoning application.

“We thought this was pretty much a done deal and that they’d deny this. All the recommendations from staff and committees were for denial,” he said.

“I can understand. As soon as the applicant brought up his concerns that the Area C director was biased, you could tell the director sat back in his chair and realized we need to go to a public hearing to make sure there’s no appearance of bias and he gets his full due process.”

According to Gibbons, the Merville Water Guardians are also issuing a petition to the provincial government to stop issuing licences to extract groundwater for bottling and selling purposes. The petition currently has over 165 signatures.

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