Port Alberni city council is considering applying to have McLean Mill removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), after a non-farm use application to the Agricultural Land Commision (ALC) was denied.
The city was served a non-compliance notice from the ALC back in March after a public complaint pointed out that the McLean Mill National Historic Site—which is located within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR)—is being used for commercial ventures outside of the scope of a National Historic Site. This includes food and gift services, campgrounds and public events.
As a result, the city sent an application for non-farm use to the ALC back in June 2020.
On Nov. 2, the Agricultural Land Commission’s Island Panel determined that the city’s current operations are not “an appropriate use of ALR land” so long as McLean Mill remains in the ALR.
The panel’s decision found that McLean Mill’s “agricultural capability is significantly limited due to its historical use as a mill site.” Most of the site is made up of heritage buildings and equipment, as well as a fish hatchery.
Based on a contamination assessment that was prepared by Envirochem Special Projects Inc. in 1994, the panel also determined that the land has been exposed to “many years of soil contamination” as a result of the mill’s operation.
“The Panel finds that years of soil contamination from the Property’s industrial and commercial uses have disturbed the soil’s nutrients and composition thereby limiting the Property’s current and future potential for soil-bound agriculture,” read the Nov. 2 report.
The panel has refused the city’s proposal to continue operating commercial and tourism uses on the site.
City CAO Tim Pley recommended making an application to the ALC to have the site removed from the ALR, but councillors were concerned about the cost and time that would have to be spent on this application.
“This is frankly far too much of our focus and has been for way too many years,” said Mayor Sharie Minions. “This is a national historic site, and if the federal government cares about this site then I feel like they have a role to play in this.”
Pley explained that the city has not pursued this matter with the federal government based on legal advice. Because this legal advice is confidential, Pley couldn’t share any specifics.
Councillors eventually agreed to ask city staff to bring back a report about the proposed cost of the ALC application, but did not commit to writing the application yet.
After the ALC’s final decision was released, Beaver Creek resident and former McLean Mill Society bookkeeper Susan Roth sent a letter to city and ACRD staff, saying that she supports the ALC’s decision. She described McLean Mill as “a toxic mess” due to soil and water contamination.
“The way I see it, McLean Mill is a brownfield site and should be treated as such,” she said. “I hope that you decide to make our environment a priority and move forward with a plan to clean up the place.”
Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce executive director Bill Collette, meanwhile, encouraged council during Monday’s meeting to “stay the course” and apply for removal from the ALR.
In the meantime, Pley has reached out to the ALC’s compliance branch to confirm that no enforcement will take place until after the city has had an opportunity to submit a new application.
“The [Alberni Valley] Chamber of Commerce will continue to run the gift shop out there,” he said. “We have requested that they not make any changes to their operations in the meantime.”