The multi-phase, multi-partner south sewer project was unceremoniously flushed down the drain Saturday, as nearly three quarters of voters who took part in the referendum voted against the estimated $56 million project.
The Comox Valley Regional District had secured approximately $35 million in funding for the project.
The referendum asked residents of Royston, Union Bay and Kilmarnock whether or not they were in favour of taxpayer-based funding for the balance of the project, amortized over 30 years. The estimated cost to homeowners was pegged at between $1,800 and $2,000 per year.
A total of 970 votes were cast, 686 of which voted against the proposal, 71 per cent.
CVRD chair and Area 1 director Bruce Jolliffe was surprised at the result.
“I was a little bit surprised; I thought if anything, it would be a little bit closer than that,” he said. “Given the history, too, the previous referendum was 69 per cent in favour.”
A 2006 referendum addressed the same issue, asking residents if they would be in favour of a project, should the CVRD attain two-thirds of the necessary funding.
The 2006 referendum passed, but the project did not go ahead at that time, as the funding was not available.
This time the district had the appropriate funding in place, but the voters turned it down.
“After a decade and a bit, we find the funding and the electorate has a different (opinion),” said Jolliffe. “If you do the math, it’s about half of the electorate that has changed their mind and swapped sides.”
The voter turnout was estimated at 43 per cent, which also surprised Jolliffe.
“For such an important thing, it was very disappointing that less than half the people would take the time to (vote),” he said. “We provided many opportunities, including a mail-in option, the advance poll and of course the vote on Saturday.”
Where does the CVRD go from here?
“Well, we’ll have to regroup,” said Jolliffe. “We didn’t spend a lot of time putting Plan B together – that’ not the object of the game. But obviously the voters have spoken – they are not interested at this point.”
Jolliffe expects the available funding to be pulled off the table forthwith.
“Now that we don’t have a mandate for its use, that funding is money that can be used for another municipality. It’s not going to just sit there.”
As for suggestions that the province could step in and mandate the advancement of a sewer project contrary to the referendum results, Jolliffe is not expecting any such action.
“I don’t get a sense of that at this time,” he said. “There is speculation from others but we have no information from the province, one way or the other.”
The second question put to voters was whether or not they supported a public–private partnership (P3) agreement. Of the 972 votes cast on that question, 733 voted no, or 75 per cent.