Sitting on the southern border of the District of Highlands, B.C. is a 65-acre property that has been a point of contention since 2016.
The property, owned by O.K. Industries Ltd., is the site of an impending gravel quarry. In recent months, visible tree removal has sparked protests from residents, with bright-coloured signs of disapproval dotting the roadway near the parcel of land.
The Highlands sits close to Victoria — B.C.’s capital — with a sparse population of about 2,500. Its neighbours are among the fastest growing municipalities in the province. But the Highlands is different, by design. From its inception, the community’s vision for itself was as a forested refuge, away from the city.
Related story: The Highlanders: A community unites against urban incursion
On the face of it, this is a conflict like many others. A company proposes some new development, and environmentally minded community members stand in opposition.
It’s rare, though, to find a community so unified against a proposal. In a typical scenario, you may see the environmentalists on one side, and the people arguing for the economy and jobs on the other.
But the Highlanders are very nearly aligned. Three separate groups are now fighting the project on different fronts, even as development of the quarry begins.
The community is against the project despite an Official Community Plan — developed by the community in 2007 and updated in 2013 — that suggests the area could support economic activity and perhaps gravel extraction. Residents oppose the project even though existing industrial activities and landfill sites take up two sides of the property. And they continue to push against the project in the face of a B.C. Supreme Court decision declaring that they have no legal grounds to do so.
Residents can give you many reasons for their opposition — mainly environmental concerns over impacts on land and drinking water — but none of these matter so much as the simple fact that the community does not want the quarry to go ahead. They say they’ve lost faith in a legal system that, instead of protecting the community’s wishes, imposes laws that take precedence over the will of the people.
The company, meanwhile, is a little mystified. It has followed the rules. It came to the community to seek a workable solution before seeking a permit from the province, though it didn’t technically have to. It says its intentions are good: supporting local jobs and the economy while supplying the gravel that a growing region needs for its roads and buildings.
The two sides haven’t sat down together since the unsuccessful rezoning process in 2016. Now, the conflict plays out through protests, lawyers, courtrooms and the media.
The company has no plans to stop developing the quarry. It is, according to representatives, just following the rules.
“I recognize that the legislation, the way the laws and the rules work, are not quite how some of the Highlands population would like to see things unfold but those are the legal rules that we as a company are obligated to follow,” says O.K. Industries corporate advisor Mel Sangha.
“But there’s still people that aren’t happy with it. I don’t know how to change the legislation. Maybe it’s the legislation that’s the issue.”
On that, the company and the community members can agree.
A case for the O.K. Industries quarry
Sangha says the company’s original intention was to have the property — purchased in 2015 — rezoned by the District of Highlands to allow for a quarry operation. After the gravel is extracted the plan was, and still is, to turn the site into an industrial business park.
The company identified this location as a viable spot for gravel extraction for a few reasons. Sangha says its proximity to the O.K. Industries facility in downtown Victoria meant trucks would travel shorter distances to ship gravel to the company. Due to a lack of industrial space in the Greater Victoria region, Sangha says the next most-viable options would have been in Sooke or on the Malahat. He says shipping gravel from farther distances would make the operation more expensive, driving up costs for gravel, and would mean trucks are travelling farther, expelling more carbon emissions into the air.
“It makes the most sense,” Sangha says about the quarry location. “From a practical point of view you want less road wear and tear, you want less heavy truck traffic, you want the roads to be safer and you want less greenhouse gases to be emitted.”
There is already an industrial park to the south of the property. North of the impending quarry site is the Highwest landfill facility, which accepts contaminated material, according to the District of Highlands. The facility was formerly owned by Tervita, and is now owned by Coast Environmental Ltd. Northwest of the proposed quarry is the Millstream Meadows site, which is owned by the Capital Regional District and is undergoing remediation. Millstream Meadows was used as an unregulated landfill for septic discharge between approximately 1941 and 1985.
The rest of the area around the O.K. Industries property includes a residential subdivision, the District of Highlands municipal office, Hatcher Swamp and the Millstream Creek watershed, which is undergoing enhancement of its salmon habitat. It is also adjacent to the western boundary of Thetis Lake Regional Park.
The property itself is zoned as Greenbelt 2, meaning it only allows uses that are residential and agricultural, including home-based businesses, buildings and structures.
Community values drive decision-making
O.K. Industries applied to rezone the property for industrial use in 2016 but the application was denied by the District of Highlands.
The district says the denial was out of concern for Highlands drinking water and ecologically sensitive areas, including Teanook Creek in the northern portion of the property and a wetland and woodland in the central portion of the property. The district says residents are also concerned about noise, vibration, dust and traffic impacts from the operation.
At the time, Sangha says, O.K. Industries expressed that if rezoning wasn’t approved the company would go to the province for a quarry permit instead. This would mean land use decisions related to the quarry would be put in the hands of the province, rather than the district. But the district still held firm in its opposition to the quarry.
Karen Burns, who was a Highlands councillor at the time, says the Highlands community has been vehemently opposed to the quarry operation since 2016.
“It was pitched to us as, ‘We’re going to have this wonderful industrial site for you in 25 years, as soon as we get all this rock out of the way,’” Burns says. “It was quite obvious that people in the community were just like, ‘No way.’ So the council rejected it.”
Taking it up with the province
Once the rezoning was denied, O.K. Industries applied directly to the province for a mining permit, as intended. In response, the District of Highlands wrote letters to the B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines and Premier John Horgan, who is also the local MLA, explaining the municipality’s opposition.
Over the next three years, O.K. Industries would undertake assessments performed by third parties to address community concerns.
“We engaged a review to answer concerns raised by the public,” Sangha says. The province granted a permit on the basis that the operation is legal and the potential issues were dealt with, he adds.
The permit, issued in March, 2020, requires that a water management plan for the site be prepared and implemented. It also says quarrying at the site can’t have a negative impact on the quality or quantity of neighbouring existing domestic groundwater users. Groundwater levels and water quality must be monitored. The permit says “drilling and blasting must not negatively impact the surrounding environment and properties in a significant way.”
A 2019 document from an O.K. Industries open house says the permit application was revised to reflect a smaller environmental footprint. The quarry would be limited to 95 metres above sea level — the same level as Millstream Road, Sangha says — to avoid creating a hole. The proposed quarry area was also reduced from approximately 52 acres to 40 acres. Buffer widths between Teanook Creek, Thetis Lake Park, the tributary to Millstream Creek and Millstream Road were increased as well.
But those concessions haven’t changed the community’s position. At its core, the community doesn’t want the quarry operation in the Highlands.
“It’s been said in so many ways … that we do not want their business, their industry, their activity in our community,” says Scott Richardson, chair of the Highlands District Community Association. “It’s as simple as that. We’ve asked them to listen and they don’t … and nor do we feel that the mines ministry has really heard us.”
In fact, Richardson says the quarry has unified the community even more over the last few years. Now, three different arms of the Highlands — the municipality, independently organized residents and the community association — are working to maintain agency and have their voices heard.
While the municipality and the community association pursue separate legal avenues to affirm the community’s right to have the final say, the Not OK community group is making noise through public protest, seeking to connect with communities with similar struggles and looking towards a bigger goal of reforming the Mines Act.
Sangha says O.K. Industries Ltd. hasn’t sat down at the table with representatives from the District of Highlands since the failed rezoning process in 2016. While he says he respects the decision to let the courts handle this issue, he says he’s willing to try and come to a resolution. But he’s not sure what that would look like.
“We’re open to dialogue, I just don’t know where to start,” Sangha says. “The conversation started in the courts and continues in the courts and protests on the streets … until those avenues are exhausted and maybe at that point there might be some desire to sit down and say, ‘OK how should we proceed?’”
But Richardson says any opportunity for dialogue is a year too late.
“It’s been over a year [since the province issued the permit] and it would have been nice if they listened,” he says. “They would have found out that we don’t want it … and maybe it would have been a good time to consider looking somewhere else and meeting with the community to figure out what they want.”
While he recognizes the company’s need to make money and remain operational, as well as the need for gravel and asphalt in the region, Richardson says he wonders if O.K. Industries believes money to be more important than the company’s reputation and environmental issues like climate change.
O.K. Industries approaches its work in the context of the Capital Regional District, Sangha says, and its need for more gravel and asphalt as the population grows and develops. He says widening the lens outside of the Highlands brings perspective to the company’s work and the benefits of having a quarry operation nearby.
Sangha questions why residents are so opposed to the O.K. Industries site but aren’t as vocal about the landfills or the industrial park south of the quarry property.
Both Richardson and Burns say they’ve accepted that there’s already an industrial park in the area and are willing to work with it. They’ve also accepted that the landfills exist and can be remediated in the future. But moving forward, they want the focus to shift to what they call “re-wilding” the properties when the opportunity arises — restoring natural habitats again and giving back to the planet. To them, the quarry seems like a step in the wrong direction.
“There was this old idea that the South Highlands would be the economic engine and that it would reduce the taxes for the rest of us living in the Highlands and we could preserve the rest of the Highlands,” Burns says. From her understanding, “It was never envisioned that there would be a mine on the site. People were thinking of a green campus, low-impact commercial development and low-rises.”
The district’s official community plan, the same one that notes potential for gravel extraction, also includes a sustainability objective intended to guide decision-making that explicitly lists reducing dependence on materials extracted from the earth and the creation of associated wastes. It also says the Highlands “will strive to diversify its economy while preserving [its] natural systems, including the aquifers.”
Looking at legislation reform
While this years-long dispute has the Highlands and O.K. Industries on the face of it, Richardson and Burns both say that ultimately the legislation needs to change before a dangerous precedent is set for the rest of the province.
The Not OK group is starting to research reforms to the Mines Act. Burns says they hope to reach out to other communities in B.C. that may have experienced a similar issue of the province overriding the will of a community. They are likely to find company.
The BC Mining Law Reform Network also promotes changes to mining practices and mineral development laws. One of the network’s objectives is to ensure policies respect community decisions and are environmentally sound.
“The network is not against mining, but it is against mining at any cost, or price,” the network’s website says.
“We have this Mines Act that just overrides community values, bylaws and procedures,” Burns says. “I mean, this could happen anywhere.”
Editor’s note May 17, 2021: This story incorrectly listed Tervita as the owner of the Highwest landfill facility. Tervita formerly owned the facility and Coast Environmental Ltd. is the new owner. A change has been made to reflect this.
This Delving Into Development article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.