The City of Port Alberni has been served a compliance notice from the province’s Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) that could threaten operations at McLean Mill National Historic Site.
On February 6, the city received a letter from the ALC, which recommends that the city submit a non-farm use application for McLean Mill. McLean Mill, located on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1989.
“The ALC understands the property is designated as a National Historic Site,” the letter notes. “With the proposal for that designation it was understood the purpose would be to create a historic sawmilling complex for educational and interpretive use of the public.”
The letter adds that “it seems the property has been used for commercial ventures outside the scope of what was included in the proposal.”
In January of this year, Beaver Creek resident Susan Roth submitted a letter to city council and the ALC, pointing out that the city is not following ALR regulations for gatherings. At the time, City CAO Tim Pley said he had been corresponding with the ALC and planned to come forward with a report.
Now, Pley says that the correspondence has been interrupted by this compliance notice.
“Essentially, our conversation with the Agricultural Land Commission changed from dealing with them at an administrative level to dealing with them at an enforcement level, which is unfortunate,” he explained during a city council meeting on Monday, March 30.
There are a number of events planned at McLean Mill this year, including weddings and the Five Acre Shaker music festival. Pley said he has been in contact with the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce—which operates McLean Mill—and with the Five Acre Shaker organizers. All visitor services at McLean Mill have already been suspended since March 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They are completely aware of our interactions with the ALC,” Pley said. “And of course COVID-19 likely trumps all those things.”
The question now is whether the city must answer to the provincial ALC, or whether McLean Mill’s designation as a federal historic site trumps these regulations. But the city is on a strict timeline, with the possibility of a “cease and desist” order coming down from the ALC if staff does not comply.
“Personally I feel that we’re operating within the parameters of running a national historic site, creating revenue flows and so on,” said Councillor Ron Paulson on Monday.
Councillor Debbie Haggard agreed that the national historic site designation “is over and above” the ALC’s regulations.
“The federal body should be designating that it’s okay to do what we’re doing,” she added.
This is not the first time the matter has come before council. In August 2019, Port Alberni resident Roland Smith sent a letter to council, questioning if the activities on the McLean Mill site fell in line with ALC regulations and asking for physical proof that the city had interacted with the ALC.
At the time, Councillor Cindy Solda proposed reaching out to the ALC to make sure McLean Mill was following regulations. Her motion was defeated by a 5-2 vote, with only Solda and Councillor Ron Corbeil voting in favour.
On Monday, council voted to submit a non-farm use application to the ALC, reserving the right to withdraw that application if the federal government rules supercede the ALC’s compliance notice. At the same time, the city will reach out to the federal government for some clarification on McLean Mill’s role as a national historic site.
“There are different sets of rules and we’re not sure which ones we fall under,” explained Mayor Sharie Minions.
The city has also reached out to the Chamber of Commerce to find out what their plans are for McLean Mill and how the site’s closure will impact these plans.
Pley noted on Monday that the ALC has likely only engaged because of a complaint from the public.
“That site is not going to become farmland,” Pley said. “It’s only going to become more valuable as a national historic site as time goes on. [The ALC’s] interest likely is not high.”