More Talk on the Burde Street Ponds

It’s been two-and-a-half months since the San Group gave a press conference announcing a billion dollar investment around two beautiful woodland ponds just inside the the city limits of Port Alberni. Shock waves have been rippling through the city as people digested the news. Letters of opposition have appeared in the local newspaper. A Facebook group with just under 400 members has been very active with people anxiously speculating on the impact this would have on the wildlife and atmosphere around the ponds. And the San Group has been silent until very recently.

Last Friday afternoon Mike Butler, their Marketing & Media Relation Manager,  invited me to their offices for a chat. When I arrived there was something going on in the board room, I believe the Minister for Housing, also our local Member of the Legislature and her staff, were being briefed about the development. I met Mike Butler who brought me to his office. He told me they are going to amend the original application. There are a bunch of changes. Below is a list Butler sent me. I will comment on each point after this list.

  • They will be lowering the density by 50-55% to 1200 units,
  • They will be keeping the beavers,
  • They will be keeping trees along Log Train Trail and the trail staying where it is. They are also exploring putting the trees in a trust along the Log Train Trail to preserve them for future generations. The distance is still to be determined at various segments, 
  • The construction techniques proposed are all to be green construction building and green energy use methods that they plan to share publicly shortly.
  • The 10 year to 30 year construction time-line will slowly introduce new housing in the area being respectful of existing home owners on a price and traffic level. We do plan on offering local residents lease to own options based on job qualifications. The lease to own option is still to be determined based on feedback. 
  • They are in negotiations with the city about donation of a 30 meter setback from the ponds in trade with another piece of property the city owns. 

Lowering the density of homes to 1200 units still means that this will be a very dense neighbourhood, with at least 2400 people packed onto about 55 acres. The original property is given as 73 acres, so I deducted an estimated area of the ponds and the 5% that the city would legally require for park land. That’s about 45 people per acre. Very dense.

The consequences of such density will mean that so many parents and children will be using this area that it will quickly degenerate. Even with high fences and controlled access points, the beaver, the turtle and the ducks will leave, in my opinion. More research is needed to confirm this.

I’m glad they will keep the beavers. But in order to maintain their presence the habitat would have to be carefully managed to avoid disturbance in the early morning hours and in the evening hours. Enough forage must be kept in the area to ensure a food supply for them. Consideration has to made for what happens to the kits when they are old enough to leave home. Dogs should not be allowed to cool off in the ponds.

The idea of a trust for the trees along the Log Train Trail is a good one. But without anything specific, it doesn’t amount to much. This will have to be negotiated.

It is nice that the San Group is seriously looking at constructing the home with the environment in mind. One of Mike’s colleagues spent some time on explaining their green techniques to me. They are planning to use oriented strand board with foam sandwiched between them in panels. No mention was made about their R values. I was also shown images of solar panels. These are all good initiates but they don’t address the immediate environmental effects on the ponds themselves.

The long construction timeline may be beneficial in that it may keep options open when assessing the impact of the starting construction. Construction could start in a part of the property well away from the ponds. Originally the plan was to built over 5 to 8 years. I hope the city doesn’t get locked into unfavourable agreements that will have to be honoured 30 years down the road.

The last point is very concerning. The idea that they are donating land is very misleading. Section 510 of the Local Government Act says that in a development like this the developer MUST dedicate some of their land to park. The best practise used is 5%. I don’t know where this figure comes from. I can’t find it in the legislation. I’m following this up. So the best you can say is that it is a mandatory donation that is agreeable to the city

To further muddy the water, Butler says that they are in negotiations with the city to find other property to compensate for this loss of property. Our Mayor says they are not in negotiations. There must be some mix up.

Some Links

Campaign speech to the Chamber of Commerce

I’ll be speaking fairly quickly, and there may be people at the meeting who can’t hear well from where they are sitting. So here it is in print.

Hello everyone, thank you for being here.

I am running for city council in this election because for me, it is the next step. Over the 35 years I have lived here, I have been a professional forester, a nature tour guide, and a columnist for the AV News. I have served on the City’s Planning Advisory Commission, and the board of Tourism Alberni Valley. I started the Alberni Valley Politics Facebook page and helped start the Friends of the Burde Street Beaver Ponds Facebook page too. They now have 930 and 680 members respectively.

On the cards I’ve been handing out is a phrase which describes my issues: Reconciliation, Restoration and Resilience. Here’s how these words fit into my campaign.

Reconciliation means working with the local First Nations toward mutually beneficial relationships, in an atmosphere of trust and openness. The recent walk on Orange Shirt day was a special day for me because I saw people of all ages and nationalities coming together with open hearts and walking in solidarity together. That was big. We need more of that spirit.

By Restoration, I mean the restoration, and renewal of city infrastructure, that is replacing old water-mains before they fail, installing a storm water system so that our current system isn’t overburdened and our sewage lagoon doesn’t overflow. It means repaving our streets at a faster rate. It also means restoring a mature forest in our Community Watershed, China Creek so that we are confident in the quality of our water supply. And it also means restoring the three fish creeks that flow through Port Alberni, to habitat that encourages the salmon to build back their numbers. We should not accept that what has happened to them as the price of progress.

By Resilience, I am thinking about what is coming at us in the future. We live in uncertain times. Whether it be droughts, natural disasters, financial crises, heat domes, pandemics, supply chain issues, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, or something else, we need to be prepared.  This means planning and building our infrastructure to withstand more fluctuations, producing more of our own food in this valley, making our health care system robust and not permanently in crisis mode, ensuring our transportation networks are intact, our buildings energy efficient, and able to accommodate increasing numbers of people coming to our community.

I also have issues I want to talk about.

First, there is some good news.  The Burde Street Beaver Ponds, appears to be on its way to some sort of resolution. A year after the announcement of over a 1000 housing units around the ponds, no formal application has been submitted.  It looks like the property around the ponds themselves will be left as is. But there is still uncertainty about the creek that empties them and flow into Roger Creek, an endangered salmon creek.

Housing, particularly low-cost housing, is a critical issue. But in my mind there is ample room for infill. There are vacant lots and decrepit buildings all over the city, some vacant for years. The biggest stumbling block is timely building permits.  We need a simpler process and more staff badly.

The Somass Mill property is a thorny issue because there is great uncertainty about the cost of removing contaminated soil from the property. Until it is resolved nothing will happen there. If the costs turn out to be prohibitive, I am open to leaving it as an industrial site but with a harbour walkway along the edge of it. But here are two other preferred options to explore first.

Finally the update of the Official Community Plan, or OCP is a very important strategic document for the city. There is an OCP for every Electoral Area and municipality in the Regional District. Ours is the oldest, by far. It’s 15 years old. Everything from housing strategies to environmental protections is covered in it. Port Alberni is a very different place now compared to 15 years ago. The updating process underway, needs to continue in the next term.

My time is probably up. I want to thank you for listening to my thoughts and ideas for Council in the next term if I am elected. Good night.

What I know about the Somass Mill site

What I know about the Somass Mill isn’t enough. But I have misgivings. I am talking about the five properties totalling 43 acres the City of Port Alberni bought for $5.3 million. The intention was to sell off most of the properties keeping part of it as public waterfront access and Park. The rest would be a mix of retail on the ground floor with living areas above.

Part of the deal is that no primary sawmilling can be done there for 5 years. I know first hand, that the San Group is interested in this property. So I wonder if the popular rumor, that the San Group wants to build a pellet plant qualifies?

Recently, I went on a walkabout there with Chris Alemany and others. He is advocating restoration of the Dry Creek estuary. That is a third option. Several mayoral candidates, a CHEK TV crew, two former senior employees from the mill, and citizens were there. The third option is to recreate the Dry Creek estuary that this site is built on.

What I learned is that the city hired a contractor to conduct Phase 2 technical contamination assessments on the site (See the link for a better idea of what that is.). As part of a due diligence investigation, the City conducted this assessment before the decision to purchase the mill was made.

Jim Rutherford was the Environmental Co-Ordinator of the Somass Mill site for many years before retiring. He learned about the purchase at the same time as the rest of us back in August of last year. Because he felt that he was likely the only staff person from the old mill able to discuss this issue with city staff, he asked for a meeting with Tim Pley and others. At that meeting, he was shown where the assessment samples were taken and showed them the location of key contaminated areas that were not discovered by the consultants. However the purchase had been completed at that time.

Three choices have been described so far: the San Group’s pellet mill, the mixed use of storefront with apartments and/or condos above and a walkway on the waterfront, or complete restoration of the Dry Creek estuary. All of them hinge on what lies beneath and what it will take to remediate the site.

Some thoughts on Housing

I’ve been boning up on housing. It’s complicated. From high end to bottom end, there are shortages. But the need in the low end is most serious. But we don’t really know how bad it is. We don’t keep up-to-date statistics. Scot Smith says the last Canada Mortgage and Housing survey was about a year ago and doesn’t include all the private rental suites in town. But we know it’s tough to find a place, and expensive.

Yet we see buildings going up all over the place. According to city statistics The value of building permits has shot up from $16 million as the average for a year to $80 million. A new seniors home is about to be built, and one is about to open.

But even with all the new housing coming on line, prices are prohibitive for those living on fixed incomes, single women with children and lacking skills, those with disabilities and so on. So we see their desperation and despair on our streets and in shelters. The number of homeless from the latest survey a year or so ago is around 200.

I believe the Province is acutely aware of the issues and is working on them in their plodding, bureaucratic way. Consultation, and consensus takes time. I want to be part of bringing rent prices down and and rental vacancies going up, and will be looking for ideas and opportunities to do just that.

The 10th Avenue Crossing

Here’s an issue that never seems to go away.

For those who are new to town, the north end of 10th Avenue dead ends at the top of the ravine, or canyon of Roger Creek. One of the reasons there is a traffic bottleneck on Gertrude is because a bridge across the Roger Creek Canyon has never been built. It would take a lot of congestion away from Gertrude Street. And access to the Pacific Rim Shopping Centre, Walmart, and Canadian Tire from South Port would be much faster. It seems like a no brainer.

And a fellow called to say just that, this afternoon. “Why hasn’t it been built?”, he asked.

Well it’s easy to say, there’s no money or political will. But that isn’t a very satisfactory answer. There’s more to it.

First, it would be a very big bridge. From the top of the canyon on one side, to the top of the canyon on the other side is around 250m. It is a longer crossing than the Highway 4 bridge across the Sproat River. So that’s a lot of money to invest. There is no way the City of Port Alberni could pay for it without help from more senior levels of government. That may be more likely now as we have an MLA, Josie Osborne, who is a Minister in the BC Government.

But there are other things to consider, Roger Creek itself. It is a salmon-bearing stream. In former times Coho runs were abundant in it. They are still there but much reduced in number despite numerous efforts to enhance the run. Construction of a very large bridge over a creek with a fragile salmon run could easily make the run even more fragile. It any landslide happened during construction it would end up in the creek immediately. It would also be very difficult to prevent silt and erosion from entering the creek during construction.

And now there’s the fact that The Scott Kenny Trail lies beneath any proposed orientation of the bridge. Construction would creak significant overhead hazards, forcing that part of the trail to close for however long the construction took.

Finally there is the issue of all those people in the neighbourhood at the north end of Tenth would be very unhappy to see their homes, homes that they may have bought because of the wooded ravine out their back door, become a major thoroughfare. I happen to know people who live at each end of the proposed crossing. Nobody likes to be told that it is for the greater good. So we sit…

Next entry Friday– Housing

Beyond the trees is Roger Creek Canyon

Why am I running?

Good question. Every time I think about it, I come up with a different answer.

When I was a young man out of high school in Ottawa, and working at the Experimental Farm (hoeing weeds, believe it or not) I remember meeting a young guy who said he wanted to be a Politician. That was the last thing I wanted to be. My, how we change!

I’m running because Port Alberni is my home, despite growing up in Ottawa. It’s been 35 years since a freshly qualified young forester moved to town, me his wife. All our friends are here. And there is something about this valley that tells me it could be a self-sustaining community in many, many ways.

I’m running because I’m retired. Not having children, my wife and I have time to devote to our passions, mine being a greater interest in politics, working toward restoring damaged ecosystems, rivers and creeks; and more personal ones like birding, gardening, and being a Freemason.

I’m running because I’ve found myself in a position where this is the next step. After my career, I had operated a local tour company conducting day-trips and nature tours. I wrote an outdoors column for the AV Times, and then for the AV News, and since Covid, posted posts here in my blog. When the news conference hit a little over a year ago that The San Group was proposing a huge development around the Burde Street Ponds, I was aware of what was coming, but not the scale of it. It seemed like it had to be me that said something, so I stepped up.

Things have changed on the proposed development in the past year. The city is still waiting for an application, an application that will take months to assess. It has an eight-month backlog (as of a couple of months ago) of other permits ahead of them. An official from the San Group called a couple of days ago, to say that because they have a huge new mill in Langley that is taking all their time, they are not in any hurry to do anything. This is what they say. So the issue isn’t urgent by any means anymore, but isn’t going away. It was clear to me that they still plan to “make money from the property” as it was expressed to me.

So I’m running for council as the next step. And this city needs to have an environmental advocate on council. In this time of uncertainty, with war, famine, floods, disease, and large refugee populations on the move, we need to prepare for the future, not to pretend that it’s steady as she goes in this little valley.

That’s why I’m running.

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PS. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be talking about election issues in more posts. Questions? I’m happy to answer. Scoldings? Not so much, but I’ll listen.

Councillor McRuer?

After a fair bit of dithering, I have decided to run for City Council.

I believe there should be a voice on council for the environment. Important decisions about the future of the city will be made during the next term. And I am all about sustainability, restoration, and community resilience.

A vital part of community resilience is creating sufficient, adequate homes for people. This housing has to be durable, with low energy requirements for indoor climate control, not something that will get us through the next two or three elections.

I also believe we have the ability to build this housing without resorting to sacrificing the beautiful woodland environment of the Burde Street Beaver Ponds.

At the risk of irking the current Councillors, I would say that environmental concerns are not high on their agenda. There are so many dire warnings out there in the voices of the climate scientists, in the storms, droughts, disease, and pollution that I’ve lost track. We need someone with a greater sense of urgency who will address the business of council with this perspective. I will do that.

If elected, I also want to try to do my bit to create a more accountable council. Having spoken a few times to council, and watched meetings I have noticed that councillors seem loath to express opinions. It may be their desire to maintain the appearance of an open mind. I don’t know. But if I am elected, I will be calling for a recorded vote on a regular basis. This will give the public a better idea of how our elected officials feel about the motion at hand.

I want to thank all the people who have put their names on my nomination papers. It may sound trite. But you have no idea how much this support means to a person sticking thier neck out and running for office for office for the first time. Thank you!

A Good Year for Seeing Sandpipers

The Alberni Valley has never been a great place to see sandpipers (called shorebirds among birders). They generally like beaches and rocky coastlines. We see Killdeers, Spotted Sandpipers and Snipe here, the Killdeers and on farmer’s fields, Spotted Sandpipers along gravel bars of rivers and lakeshores and the Snipe in wet areas of fields.

But there is little habitat for the majority of the 20 sandpiper species that regularly pass through. The little habitat that exists is at what’s left of the estuary of the Somass River. And it is pretty inaccessible. For one thing, it is on the other side of the river. You need to drive through the Tseshaht Reserve along the Shoemaker Bay Road till you come to the road into the wastewater treatment ponds, on the left. It’s gated. So you need to walk in from there. That’s a 2.5 km walk along a semi-private road, before you get to the mudflats and gravel islands. And then it has to be low tide.

Or you could hop in a kayak, paddleboard or small boat to get there.

Pair of Least Sandpipers. They are the world’s smallest sandpiper.

This year however, you don’t need to go as far. The City of Port Alberni is near the end of a long construction project to update and improve the water quality of the sewage effluent into the end of the inlet. To do this, it bought the old, unused mill effluent lagoon and converted it to handle human waste. The old lagoon has been “dewatered” leaving a large puddle in the middle surrounded by sludge. It is a wonderful imitation of a mud flat. And it is attracting a nice variety of sandpipers. The walk in is almost half as long.

Young Solitary Sandpiper: Uncommon, you don’t see these in flocks, white spectacles and long yellowish legs.

Last year 4 shorebird species were seen at the estuary in August. In contrast, this year 11 species have been recorded, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and a Red-necked Phalarope.

Shorebirds are notoriously hard to identify. But digital cameras have made things much easier. One can now take dozens of pictures with exceptionally high performing zoom optics combined with so many features like auto focus, auto camera settings, that good pictures are pretty much guaranteed. So this has helped match the field marks that web pages tell us to look for, to the photo you’ve taken.

But I digress. It’s a good year to see shorebirds at the Somass Estuary!

Marbled Murrelet Nests

In the birding community, that means Marbled Murrelet. We use the first two letters of each word in the name… ,it’s a long story.

You may have heard of them if you have been on the West Coast  for a few years. They’ve been in the news. They are one of the very few animals that require Old Forest to survive.  It’s mandatory, obligatory.

Why, you might ask? Therein lies quite a story. You see Murrelets, are a kind of seabird related to puffins and auks. They spend most of their lives on water, not in trees. And they’re not exactly aerial acrobats either. Just to get airborne, they beat their wings as hard as they can, then they paddle their legs and skip across the water, sometimes plunging through a higher wave, before they get into the air. Once in the air you’ll see their shape is like a little, stout, robin-sized football.  So they don’t turn easily.

The next thing to know about MAMUs, is that they nest in trees in old forest. For a long time biologists couldn’t figure out where they nested. As a rule, this family of birds nests on rocky islets and cliffs, places like that. So that’s where they searched.  Until, in 1976, a tree surgeon who was cutting dead branches high in a huge old Douglas Fir in a State Campground in California. He came nose to beak with a downy young bird. Having no idea what it was, he took it to a Park Naturalist, who identified it. This was the first nest of a Marbled Murrelet ever accepted by the scientific community. Later it was realized that there were several earlier finds in British Columbia, the earliest of which was in 1955, in some old field notes discovered less than 10 years ago (Earliest Well-Described Tree Nest of the Marbled Murrelet: Elk Creek, British Columbia, 1955).

The California nest had been on thick bed of moss on a big gnarly old branch near the top of the tree. There was no actual nest, just the moss.  That’s what it needs to raise its young.

So let’s go back and think about how these birds fly. They aren’t very agile in the air. So flying through forest can be tricky. The nests must be near the tops of the trees for the birds to access them.  Steep slopes and trees that emerge from the general canopy are favoured.  After hatching, the parents go back and forth from the ocean at dawn and dusk, feeding them fish, until they are ready to fly. And when they do fly, they get one chance to get it right. Essentially they just push off the branch and fall until their madly flapping wings catch the air. Their very first flight has to take them as much as 15 km to the ocean.

To conserve the populations of Marbled Murrelets on Vancouver Island the Provincial Government established Wildlife Reserves of old growth. There are only a couple of them around Sproat Lake. It’s not surprising since not much old growth is left there. But there are eight in the Nahmint Valley and a couple more in the Cous Creek Valley. Unfortunately Mosaic Forestry Management has no plans for setting any wildlife reserves aside.

Opinions differ as to whether what has been set aside is sufficient to ensure to viability of Marbled Murrelets in the future.  Remember, old forests don’t last for ever. It just seems like it

Estuary Restoration at the Somass River Mouth

Over the last 10 years, millions of dollars have spent up and down the east coast of Vancouver Island on salmon enhancement, and on habitat restoration. And the spending continues.

The starting 20 years ago, Campbell River estuary has been extensively restored. When I lived there, it was an industrial site with three mills on it. There was mud and concrete everywhere. Large amounts of fill had been brought in to support heavy machinery logs and buildings . Very little was left as suitable habitat for fish. That has all been restored.

Restoration of the Campbell River Estuary

Further down island large amounts of money has been spent on restoring ecological functions to the mouth of Courtenay River. Almost 4 hectares of pavement are being pulled up, a shoreline wall is being removed, waterways are being established and native plants are being reintroduced.

Restoring the mouth of the Courtenay River

Even further down island, the Englishman River has been heavily restored as well. Here, there is a similar story of fill removal, re-establishment of old drainage channels and the purchase of property.

There is much more activity between these drainages being done to “soften” the shoreline and to reduce the impact of invasive Canada Geese on the intertidal zone.

However, very little has been done to restore what’s been done to the Somass Estuary over the same time period. And that’s a shame. The Somass River is arguably the most important salmon river on Vancouver Island.

Bob Cole, who has been around the fishing scene in the community and served on many “fishy” panels and boards over the years, says that thanks to the Robertson Creek Fish Hatchery, the Somass produces more Chinook than any other river on the Island. It also produces far more Sockeye than any other river on the Island, without any help from a hatchery. In fact, only the Fraser River produces more Sockeye in BC. One year it even produced more than that river, Cole says.

One can speculate about why opportunities to do this haven’t materialized. some of it could be that priority has been going to projects in the Georgia Basin. However, this valley experiences many of the same pressures from development that the basin does. We do lack the extensive beach habitat. But we have invasive species, diked creeks, old log sorts, sewage lagoons, creeks diverted, temperature issues in the rivers, dropping populations, and more. In times gone by some work was done to improve the situation by the Alberni Valley Enhancement Association.

Two small “sedge benches” were constructed, one in Shoemaker Bay and the other a couple of hundred meters down the inlet along the Log watering road. Then Ducks Unlimited with several partners bought the area ,that was originally called the J.V. Clyne Bird Sanctuary, in 1991 from Weyerhaeuser. It includes a hay meadow a marsh north of the pipeline, a fringe of old growth next to the river, and Johnston Island. At that time a dike was built along the east boundary to prevent tide water from flooding the poplar plantation next door. this was a condition of the sale. The dike was planted with native vegetation a few years later. The access road has had two culverts replaced with bridges and a larger culvert added in another place. Lastly another bridge was added to provide smolts access to the best habitat in the estuary

Two other projects are looming on the horizon. One is the restoration of the old City sewage lagoon that will be decommissioned when the new wastewater treatment plan is brought into service. Almost $200,000 has been set aside for that. And the other, is more of an idea rather than a real project

The other one is, so far, just an idea. Former councillor, Chris Alemany is gathering support for rewilding the Dry Creek estuary, former location of the Tseshaht village before contact.

But there is still plenty to do at the Somass Estuary. Way back in 2003 the Alberni Valley Enhancement Society along with 14 other organizations from business government and conservation organization hired a consultant to write a report called the Somass Estuary Management Plan. It details many projects that could be carried out. Only a fraction of them have been acted on.

Burde Street Property Not The Proper Place for High Density Housing

In a meeting on Tuesday morning with Mayor Sharie Minions said told that Burde Street Ponds is not the proper place for high density housing. The proper place is closer to the core areas of the city. She went on to say that the days of accepting any development proposal put before council being approved are over.

Minions went on to say that this town has changed a great deal since she was first elected to council. That we are no longer desperate. She recognises that since the announcement in August, this development proposal has a very high profile in the community, and that is important that the City proceeds properly with plenty of community participation. But community input cannot proceed until a plan and an application is in place. So it is still early days.

It seems there has been a great deal of confusion over this development on the part of the San Group and Pacific Mayfair Estates. The Initial application was incomplete. To my knowledge, they still have yet to submit a complete application. Last August they hired Mike Butler to conduct community consultation. However without a solid proposal it was difficult for him to do his job. According to San spokes person, Mike Ruttan, he ended up making commitments that he was not authorized to make. And he lost his job during the Christmas period. He emphasized that the company is making no commitments at this point. The San Group has has hired a solid architectural firm to develop a proper proposal. So things may be on the right track for them.

So, it seems we are back at square one. But, it gives those of us who are concerned about the future of this property an opportunity to find out more about the ponds and the needs of the wildlife around and in them. Here are some questions.

  1. How far up Wolfe Creek do do salmon fry go?
  2. Where are the Red-legged Frogs living on the property?
  3. Where are the egg nesting grounds for the Painted Turtles?
  4. How much of the property is necessary to sustain a family of beavers?

19 Jan 2022