ROBERT BARRON CITIZEN
It’s said you can’t fight city hall.
But people in the Cowichan Valley are learning that they don’t have to meekly accept unpalatable impositions on their communities without a fight.
A case in point is the 900-member strong Shawnigan Residents Association that has so successfully galvanized public opposition to the importation of contaminated soil to a site directly adjacent to the community’s water supply.
The association’s successes so far in their ongoing battle to shut the operation down have caught the interest of people in other parts of the valley, and beyond.
As a result, many have begun to see the value of concerted community action in important development and other decisions in their neighbourhoods.
The SRA began earnest efforts to shut down the contaminated-soil operation, owned by South Island Aggregates and Cobble Hill Holdings, since the project began five years ago.
They were in for a big fight, considering the fact that the project had been given a clean bill of health by a supposedly independent environmental engineering company, and was subsequently given a permit by the province to import up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil per year.
But the SRA rolled up its sleeves and tapped into the rage and the multitude of talent in the community to fight what looked like a futile battle.
Flash forward to 2016 and the SRA, along with the Cowichan Valley Regional District and others in the community, have managed to bring the contaminated soil project to its knees through their concerted court actions, and the future of the highly controversial project is now in jeopardy.
And that success has not gone unnoticed.
Last month, Maeve Maguire, a councillor in the Municipality of North Cowichan, put forward a successful motion for staff to prepare a local area plan for the Berkey’s Corner area.
Maguire said she “didn’t like the process” a controversial commercial development at that location went through to get municipal approval to proceed.
She maintained that the development of a local area plan would, hopefully, spur the creation of a neighbourhood group, much like the SRA, in that community to represent and advocate for the concerns of its citizens.
“That way, the next time a proposal like this comes before council, the community can work together with council as a group, rather than the one-on-one approach that was taken this time,” Maguire said at the time.
As well, the 10-year-old Chemainus Residents Association is looking to learn what it can from Shawnigan Lake’s experience and expertise in dealing with the soil-dump site.
They have invited Sonia Furstenau, the director for Shawnigan Lake on the Cowichan Valley Regional District who has worked closely with the SRA in the dispute, to speak at an upcoming meeting.
CRA president Kathy Wachs said the association has had a lot of experience in its own battles over issues in its community, notably over the future of Echo Heights forest.
A decade ago, the Municipality of North Cowichan was exploring the possibility of backing a residential development, with up to 350 housing units, at the approximately 54-acre forested site on the edge of the community.
But, after years of consultations and protests by the CRA and other members of the community, a compromise was reached in which just nine per cent of the site will now be used for development.
“It’s not great, but it’s not bad either,” Wachs said.
“While we learned a lot dealing with our own issues, we are very interested in what is being done in Shawnigan Lake and what successful steps the SRA has taken in their fight against the soil dump.”
Wachs said the SRA has done well forming partnerships with other like-minded groups in the community, as well as attracting people with the necessary skills and knowledge to accomplish tasks.
“We’ve done this to a certain degree as well, but the SRA is facing a much more dire situation with this soil dump than us with our issue with Echo Heights,” she said.
“Bringing so many people with so much knowledge together for this one task has been very transformative for that community, and it has become different because of this struggle. These things really wake us up to what can happen in our own backyards.”
Calvin Cook, president of the SRA, said the association began in the 1990s initially to get people together to fight a plan by the TimberWest forest company to tax lakeside owners on what it claimed was its property.
He said the membership was small at the beginning, but the almost universal opposition in the area to the “egregious” soil project made it easy to engage the whole community.
He said the fact that Shawnigan Lake is a bedroom community for many professionals with a variety of skill sets who commute daily to jobs in Victoria means there is no shortage of talent to draw on in the ongoing fight.
Cook said that once the fight to drive the soil dump from the community is over, whether it’s successful or not, he doesn’t believe it will signal the demise of the SRA.
He said there are always issues in the community in which people need to be given a voice.
“There’s taxes, development in the community, transportation issues and much more,” Cook said.
“Some people say we are a one-trick pony these days, but these other issues are there as well and we encourage anyone who has a passion to join us and help us work on those. That way, the next time an issue comes up that we are concerned about, the community can work together again to deal with it.”