The Cowichan Valley Regional District board has pushed back a decision on a controversial campground development in the Cowichan estuary. The board faces growing public opposition to the proposal and also a lawsuit threat from the property owners, who say the permit has been needlessly delayed.
Members of the Electoral Area Services Committee voted on Nov. 4 to recommend that the board approve the development permit, subject to approval from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. However on Nov. 12 the board voted instead to wait for the province to approve or reject the proposal. The development permit will come before the CVRD board again after the ministry makes a decision.
The landowners applied in 2016 to develop an approximately 7.5-acre plot of land into a campground that could accommodate 38 recreational vehicle sites and a caretaker’s building as well as services like washroom facilities and laundry. The plot of land is located on Lochmanetz Road, near the Cowichan Bay Road and Tzouhalem Road junction. It is next to Cowichan Tribes reserve land, the Cowichan Estuary Trail and a branch of the Koksilah River.
The board received 94 letters in opposition to the development and none in favour in advance of the Nov. 4 meeting, the CVRD’s corporate officer Angie Legault said at the meeting. Legault read some of them out loud during an extended 30-minute public input period. The letters expressed concern over environmental and cultural impacts of the proposal as well as Cowichan Tribes’ opposition to the project. Larry George, director of land and self governance with Cowichan Tribes, submitted a letter in opposition that was read into the record at the Nov. 4 committee meeting.
Read The Discourse’s coverage of the Nov. 4 meeting regarding the Cowichan estuary campground.
On Nov. 12, CVRD director Ian Morrison moved for the application to be referred to the province and the motion was seconded by Lori Iannidinardo, director for Area D (Cowichan Bay). All directors with the exception of Blaise Salmon, director for Area A (Mill Bay/Malahat), supported the motion to delay the board’s decision until the province has made a decision.
Since it became a referral motion, the application was not up for debate at the meeting but will be again when it comes back to the board. Morrison said Cowichan Tribes can also make an application to provide input to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
Why go to the province?
The campground development must be approved by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy before it can go ahead. This rule is set out in the provincial Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan. If the province denies the proposal, the CVRD’s decision becomes irrelevant. However if the province approves it, the CVRD will again face a tough choice: Approve the development in the face of public opposition, or deny it in the face of a lawsuit threat.
Land use and zoning
The property is currently part of the Agricultural Land Reserve, which normally doesn’t allow land use as a campground. But according to CVRD staff who spoke on Nov. 4, the property’s use as a campground predates the Agricultural Land Reserve. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) has ruled in the past that the property can therefore be used as a campground.
CVRD staff find the use of the site as a campground to be “legal non-conforming,” meaning the campground is allowed despite current zoning according to a staff report. The site is also only determined to be legal non-conforming if it has been continuously used as a campground and is not eligible for a development permit if that’s not the case.
Representatives of the property owners from the Bell Group stated in a letter that the site has been used as a campground and has been in business continually since 1985. The same letter linked to a Dropbox folder containing documents related to the site, compiled by the Bell Group. The Dropbox folder has since been deleted.
The Discourse has obtained copies of the files that appeared in the Dropbox folder. One of the files is a chronological history of key events as recounted by the documents compiled by the Bell Group.
A bit of the history
One of the documents from the folder shows that the Ministry of Environment approved the “future development” of the site in 1989 under the Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan.
In 1990, the Agricultural Land Commission said development of the site could go ahead, including 15 RV spots, a tenting area, five cabins, a dwelling and a small golf driving range.
But those plans floundered, and property remained within the Agricultural Land Reserve. In 1993, the CVRD claimed a rezoning application to remove the property from the ALR was not “actively being pursued.”
According to the documents, Morgan Maples Holdings purchased the property around 2011.
Initially, the CVRD took the position that use of the site as a campground is not recognized as legal non-conforming, and that the site would need to be rezoned to allow for development. Years later, after much correspondence and deliberation, the CVRD reversed that position and agreed that campground use is legal under current zoning.
A lawsuit threat
In 2019, the property owner wrote to the CVRD saying they intend to pursue a civil claim for damages against the CVRD. The letter is signed by Michael Kelly and is found in the Dropbox documents that are no longer online. The letter says a the property has needlessly been under a stop-work order since 2012, at a large financial cost to the owners and preventing the restoration of the property.
“For whatever reason we have now been delayed for almost nine years and there seems to be no end in sight to the delays,” the letter says. Kelly asserts that financial damages now total more than $2 million.
In August of this year, Bell Group wrote its letter to the CVRD asking that the development application be brought to the CVRD board as soon as possible.