Around 100 people showed up to talk about the importance of maintaining the Alberni Valley’s natural assets during a town hall meeting at the Athletic Hall this week.
The town hall on Monday, May 16 was moderated by Port Alberni residents Sandy McRuer and Robert Borrett, who co-administer the Facebook page “Friends of the Burde Street Beaver Ponds.”
San Group Inc. announced back in the summer of 2021 their plans to build a $1 billion housing development at the top of Burde Street under the name of Pacific Mayfair Estates. Although the undeveloped area is private property, it is popular with walkers and hikers and includes two ponds that are home to beaver dams.
Pacific Mayfair Estates has stated that the land immediately surrounding each of the ponds will be preserved as park land, but people like McRuer and Borrett are concerned that extensive construction will drive away much of the wildlife. The ponds are also home to the Western painted turtle, which is an endangered species.
“What we have here is a jewel,” Borrett told the crowd on Monday.
A number of Port Alberni residents spoke at the town hall. Some were concerned about the increase in traffic over the past few years on Burde Street. Some had ideas about other areas in the city that could be redeveloped, instead. No one spoke in favour of the housing development.
A health-care worker from West Coast General Hospital (WCGH) said that she and her co-workers visit the beaver ponds on their breaks. Others talked about the importance of the ponds for their mental health.
“This many people in the room signifies that this many people care,” said Hupacasath First Nation elected councillor Jolleen Dick. “This many people caring is the envelope to push the change over the hill.”
Hupacasath’s Elected Chief Councillor Brandy Lauder said she was “surprised” to learn about the development because there hadn’t been any consultation with Hupacasath prior to Pacific Mayfair Estates’ official announcement.
“This is not the way we conduct business,” she said on Monday.
Hupacasath operates Woodlot License W1902 in the area, which overlaps with one of the ponds, and Lauder’s main concern is the conservation of the area. Lauder said she does not support the development at this time.
“We put in protection for those beaver ponds, the creeks, the trails,” she said. “We’ve done rebuilding of trails. As far as we’re concerned at Hupacasath, [Pacific Mayfair Estates] will need to change a lot before we’ll even consider it.”
San Group did not attend the meeting on Monday, but company spokesperson Amit Chandra Shekar confirmed that they had been invited. “We politely asked them to reschedule because none of our representatives (were) available at the time scheduled,” he said.
Although the meeting took place anyway, Borrett said on Monday that organizers are working with San Group to schedule another meeting in June.
“We know the problems, that’s the easy part,” said Borrett. “But what I’d love to do is actually bring forth constructive solutions to them.”
Shekar added that company officials were concerned at the perceived threat of violence at such a meeting, which came to light in an exchange on the Friends of the Burde Street Beaver Ponds Facebook page. McRuer had asked for one or two volunteers “who are willing to calm down anyone who gets aggressive.”
Despite this, the town hall remained peaceful throughout the night. Borrett acknowledged that the San Group is made up of “wonderful people” who have provided employment for many people in Port Alberni.
“They’re just making a mistake,” McRuer added.
Mayor Sharie Minions and several Port Alberni city councillors also attended the meeting. Minions emphasized that the city does not have a formal application for this project yet. Last year, San Group submitted an application to amend the city’s Official Community Plan and zoning bylaw, but this was put on pause when San Group announced they intended to make “substantial” changes to the application.
Once these changes are made, the application will still need to go through a full staff review and a meeting of the Advisory Planning Commission before it comes to council.
“There will be many opportunities for this application to be publicly viewed and for you to have input,” said Minions.
She also emphasized that the Log Train Trail, which borders the property, is still city-owned and publicly accessible. Council does not have any intentions of selling it at this time, she added.
“That trail network is incredibly important to our community,” she said. “It would be completely out of line with council’s vision and council’s direction to make any changes to that Log Train Trail.”
One of the common themes that emerged throughout the meeting was the need for legislative change, especially when it comes to the city’s Official Community Plan (OCP). The city is currently in the process of updating its OCP, which is 15 years old. The OCP guides local government decisions when it comes to infrastructure and development.
Bryce Casavant, speaking from his experience as a former B.C. Conservation Officer, was concerned that the city’s current OCP does not take into account the province’s Wildlife Act or the Water Sustainability Act, both of which cover the conservation and protection of at risk and endangered species. As a conservation officer, he said, enforcing riparian regulations on Vancouver Island was “impossible” because of these tensions between provincial, federal and municipal rules.
“I think our community plan should have within it all the requirements of the existing provincial statute,” he said.
McRuer noted that the city’s current OCP is too vague when it comes to the protection of riparian areas.
“It is left to the city officials and councillors, who may not have a background in biological sciences, to approve these analyses,” he said.
He pointed out that the District of Tofino recently adopted provincial riparian regulations into their Official Community Plan.
“We should do the same,” he said, to the applause of the crowd.
McRuer asked the City of Port Alberni on Monday to keep in mind not only housing needs for the community, but also quality of life.
“A decision such as this will affect the city for generations,” he said.