The City of Port Alberni is moving forward with plans to redevelop more than 40 acres of prime waterfront land after making a key purchase last week.
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions announced Aug. 12 that the city has purchased the Somass Sawmill lands and four other properties for $5.3 million in a package deal from Western Forest Products.
The land purchase includes:
• The property on which Somass Division Sawmill is situated.
• A property currently used as a parking lot for Somass Division Sawmill.
• Two properties that include Harbour Road and the rail right of way extending from Argyle Street to the northern gate of Alberni Pacific Division Sawmill.
• A linear portion of land to be subdivided from a larger parcel on which HemVal Kilns is situated. The portion of land will extend from Dunbar Street and include the bed and upland on both banks of Dry Creek. Western will keep operating the kilns.
There is also a five-year covenant on the property that ensures no primary wood processing will take place on the site.
The city intends to pay for the properties using funds from the city’s reserves, including $2.2 million from the community forest dividend reserve, $1.6 million from the land sale reserve, $1.3 million from a reserve created in 2010 after Catalyst Paper finally paid their property taxes following a legal battle, and $200,000 from the general reserve fund.
City council served Western with a notice of expropriation in late June. Mayor Sharie Minions said at the time the city had had enough of seeing 43 acres of prime waterfront property sit idle for five years, after Western indefinitely curtailed forestry operations at the mill. At the time she called it the “most important property within the City of Port Alberni.”
“Each of these properties represents significant strategic value both today, and as we move forward in this changing community,” Minions said after the sale was announced.
“With the purchase of the smaller parcels, the city gains full ownership of Harbour Road and the rail corridor that provide access to waterfront properties. This will enable a strategic and well-planned redevelopment of these key areas.”
The city envisions a mix of residential, commercial and light industrial use, fronted by the Quay to Quay Pathway that council has been pushing for.
One of the properties included in the sale contains a pathway that was built as part of the Dry Creek flood abatement project from a few years ago. Former city employee Randy Fraser brought up the fact the pathway has not been maintained, and it was discovered the city allowed access contracts with Western and Island Timberlands to lapse.
Minions said that particular piece will provide the community “with an attractive loop option for the Quay to Quay path.”
Western Forest Products said in a press release issued to media that with the sale, Somass Sawmill is now permanently closed. The sawmill was indefinitely curtailed in July 2017 in what the company called a lack of log supply to operate the mill efficiently.
“We are pleased to have worked in collaboration with the City of Port Alberni to reach a negotiated agreement that will support their long-term strategic plan,” said Don Demens, president and CEO.
Minions said the intent was always to see the mill restart, but when that didn’t happen after four years the city served Western with the notice of expropriation. “We’ve been clear with Western along the way that our primary preference was for them to continue to operate the Somass Sawmill,” she said. “And in lieu of them doing that, we were ready to redevelop the site.”
While the city assumed ownership on Aug. 12, they won’t take possession until Feb. 14, 2022. “Our purchase agreement has Western having access to the site until early next year, as they’re going to be doing some of the demolition and removing some of the equipment…From what we understand, a lot of the equipment has been removed already.”
The city intends to demolish whatever is left of the mill once they take possession, and remediate the site. How much remediation and what it will cost remain to be seen, although the city intends to clean up the site sufficiently to qualify for a certificate of compliance. Minions said the city hired SLR Contracting to review a Stage 1 and Stage 2 assessment that was conducted on the site, and the contractor indicated the cost would be less than a million dollars.
Wahmeesh Ken Watts, chief councillor for Tseshaht First Nation, said the nation is looking forward to working with the city on any decisions that are made about the waterfront. The Somass Sawmill lands are within Tseshaht hahoulthee (territory), he said, “and more specifically on those lands that once comprised our historic village site at Tlukwatkwuu7is, connected to our historic village at Noopts’ikapis and also border our village and Indian Reserve of Tiipis (also known as Polly’s Point).”
Watts said he has faith that the city will collaborate with Tseshaht. “We are of the view that a relationship with the city in the development of these lands is possible and integral, one that is consistent with our rights as Aboriginal title holders and a step toward meaningful reconciliation.”
Minions said the city is prepared to move quickly with their plans for the site. “Twenty-four months to a certificate of compliance, and then along the way we will be considering rezoning, a community planning session, and potential subdivision.
“We don’t envision owning these lands permanently. We’re not purchasing them to own them for the next few decades. We are purchasing them to gain access to the waterfront, which we intend to keep for the people of Port Alberni, and then repurpose and resell them.”