Proposed land swap compromises Somenos Marsh
Cowichan’s biggest little secret, the Somenos Marsh Conservation Area is being compromised once again, this time very significantly. It hurts to witness this happen and it cuts worse after learning simple communication could have eased some of the pain.
It all started with a seemingly innocuous ad a couple of weeks ago stating North Cowichan would be making an application to remove a North Cowichan-owned piece of the Somenos Marsh Conservation Area from the Agricultural Land Reserve.
Then, in quick succession, the notification sign went up in the marsh, the excavators started to tear up the Conservation Area for the new dike and the News Leader Pictorial front page read, “Marsh reclaimed for new police services building,” surprising residents, stakeholders and even North Cowichan’s jurisdictional sidekicks.
All this and not an ounce of consultation with community groups who have invested in Somenos for almost 35 years — nor with North Cowichan’s partners on the Somenos Management Committee, a group of major landowners, government agencies, local conservation groups and Cowichan Tribes.
The mayor was even surprised when he learned from a delegation of Cowichan Valley Naturalists and Marsh Society members that the land was part of an area making up the Somenos Conservation Area, and North Cowichan was a signatory to the agreement that created the SMCA.
What surprised me was that North Cowichan did not anticipate vocal opposition to the land removal. Perhaps they did anticipate a negative response but decided to deal with it in the same old manner as the past where ‘the less they know the better’ prevailed.
There is no excuse for not sharing the ALR removal decision with the people most involved with the Conservation Area, especially since there had been an agreement in principle (the day before the press release) about improving communication and collaboration between the SMWS and North Cowichan.
Unfortunately, not all the relevant information percolates upward into the public domain. Unless you are privy to all the information, you may as well keep swimming upstream. Secrecy, and withholding information, invariably brings me to the same thought, that humans who practise this have other purposes in mind.
What happens next on the Fun Pacific property? Has a quiet deal been struck now that the municipality, citing dike construction cost savings, cut Fun Pacific’s property in half? What about the school district lands? Might be tempting for School District 79 to move from there since there seems to be some vacant real estate coming up. Can North Cowichan be trusted not to let the large area of once-floodplain become another strip development further encroaching on once-was marshlands?
The agricultural land reserve North Cowichan wants the land taken out of is surprisingly the only level of protection within the Somenos Conservation Area. The Marsh Society has been lobbying the province for a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) designation for the Conservation Area since 1992. We have also been requesting since 1996 that North Cowichan create a conservation zoning and apply it to the Conservation Area. The WMA continues to meander its way through bureaucratic tape and the conservation zoning was hinted at in North Cowichan’s last OCP.
North Cowichan is framing the land-removal decision as more agricultural land will be added to the ALR than what is being proposed for removal. The actual reality is another portion of the Conservation Area’s ALR lands will be paved and the land being offered in trade is already farmland now stuck on the wet side of the dike. There is no net gain in agricultural land despite the deception that there would be.
Paul Fletcher is a former Duncan city councillor who writes monthly in the News Leader Pictorial.