Residents in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley say they are not getting fair coverage from local newspapers over their longstanding noise complaints about an adjacent motorsport track.
But with only one newspaper covering their area in a time of closures and cutbacks, they have little recourse to other media to tell their story.
Isabel Rimmer lives 800 metres from the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit in North Cowichan, which is located just off the Cowichan Valley Highway. Opened in 2016, the track is owned by the automobile dealership company GAIN Group and allows members and visitors to race high end cars around its circuit.
Rimmer, the president of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association, said once she realized how bad the noise from the track was on a weekly basis, “there was no way it was going to be tolerable.”
“This really snuck up on us,” Rimmer said.
She said there are “hundreds of individuals and many dozens of households” that are affected by the noise from the track. The neighbourhood association has about 80 members, according to Rimmer.
The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association held three protests around the visit of racing clubs and was out every day during a full-week visit from Porsche when the German car manufacturer held a Porsche Panamera Hybrid presentation last July. The event attracted hundreds of international automotive journalists to try out new Porsche automobiles and received favourable media attention.
No one covered the protests.
“None of the street protests were covered by the news, and nobody has come to the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association for any information,” Rimmer said.
The residents believe the car dealers are putting advertising pressure on local media to avoid covering the story, a claim the Tyee could not confirm.
Automotive advertising remains a key part of revenue for newspapers.
The GAIN Group includes dealers selling brands like Alfa Romeo, Porsche, Maserati, BMW and other high-performance race cars. Members of the track are offered the car of their choice to try out on the course. It costs $48,000 for an individual 25-year-long membership and $200,000 for the ultra-exclusive founding members’ status at the track.
The Tyee found several stories in Vancouver Island media that referenced the noise from the track.
Don Descoteau, who now works at Victoria News, wrote an article for the Cowichan Valley Citizen about the track working on a sound mitigation policy. The Citizen, owned by Black Press, covers the region where the residents live.
According to Wallener, Descoteau interviewed her and Rimmer following a presentation by the Circuit to North Cowichan council committee of the whole on April 13, 2017.
“[Descoteau] ignored much of what we said in regards to the noise studies that the GAIN Group had done and their attempt to spin the story by inviting [us] to participate in a working group to address the noise,” Wallener said.
CTV Vancouver Island News did a story on residents upset by the track noise and a more recent issue involving Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit creating an off-road track on a logging road without a permit.
The Globe and Mail wrote an article about a separate issue at the track involving an allegation of workplace sexual harassment by a manager toward a paramedic employed there.
The Times Colonist, which is owned by Glacier Media, has posted 18 articles about the track since Aug. 2, 2015 and has closely followed its inception and development. One of the articles, published Aug. 8, 2017, describes noise-testing and assessment of the track by German sound engineers. Rimmer is quoted briefly in the bottom half of the story, but she said it doesn’t reflect the complaints the residents have.
“The CEO of the track organized a noise study and, unfortunately, they organized it for a day when the Porsche drivers were learning how to do panic stops. And we knew it wasn’t going to be a noisy day, so that’s exactly what the results showed,” Rimmer said. “However, they recognized this as a typical noise day and proved that the neighbours are all wrong and making this all up.”
According to a Times-Colonist story describing its opening, the track includes “a 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, presentation centre, observation deck, four state-of-the-art pit garages and personalized driver training.” The story describes the track as being “surrounded by wilderness,” and includes GAIN Dealer Group president Peter Trzewik describing the “loud, noisy fun” experienced by opening day participants and adding, “This is not just about making noise and driving around in circles.”
“Roaring opening for Island motorsport track, unique in Canada” is the headline on the story.
The Tyee made several attempts to speak to a publisher, editor and reporter at the Cowichan Valley Citizen and the Times Colonist about the issue of coverage. Calls and messages from The Tyee were not returned.
According to a Times-Colonist story, Marc Edge, an international journalism educator and media critic, the two largest provincial newspaper chains, Black Press and Glacier Media, have bought, sold and traded newspapers since 2010 and often also close them to create local monopolies.
“Advertisers seem to have influence on media content but shouldn’t be able to bring a blackout on coverage on an important civic issue,” Edge said. “If that’s what’s happening here, it’s a poor reflection on Black Press. But it’s also a sign of the times, in that times are very hard now for newspapers and they have to get all the revenue they possibly can and sometimes they’ll bend over backwards for an advertiser.”
The residents say the track noise has affected their property values. Land value across the street from the track on Mina Drive has decreased on several properties by five per cent, according to Times-Colonist story on B.C. Assessment’s 2018 evaluation.
“The five per cent decrease in land value is because [property on Mina Drive] is next to the track,” Rimmer said. “BC Assessment took another $50,000 off the value of the property because of noise.”
The Tyee made several attempts to speak to representatives of the circuit and GAIN about the noise issues, but received no responses to voicemails and emails.
The Municipality of North Cowichan provided The Tyee with contact details for Marie Baynton, the director of community engagement at the track, saying she would be the best person to speak with. When contacted by telephone, Baynton would not answer questions. “Sorry for wasting your time — why don’t I get your name and address and have someone get back to you,” she said. No one from the track followed up.
Rimmer provided The Tyee with a March 19 Facebook message she received from Paul Rossmo, the operations manager for Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit, in response to Rimmer asking for a schedule of events so she could plan days around noisy and quiet times.
The message said Rossmo understood “a newspaper reporter was writing a story on the negative impact the circuit has had on neighbors. Our understanding is the Sahtlam group has been soliciting media who will advance this point of view.”
He adds: “None of the above activities promote a positive relationship, and in fact serve to erode our efforts to effect change. Having said that, Marie and I will continue to work with you toward solutions. Changes require resources and can be very costly but we’re resolved to do what we can.”
Originally, the track’s property was owned by the Municipality of North Cowichan and was zoned entirely Industrial Heavy. In 2011, 15 acres of the property were rezoned to Commercial Rural Recreation Zone for a go-kart facility that was proposed at the time. The municipality sold the property to the GAIN Group in 2014.
Dorothy Alexander, president of Vancouver Island Karting Association, said she “had been working on trying to get a permanent go-kart facility since 1998… The municipality phoned me and said. ‘We have an offer from the GAIN Group to purchase the land, but we have an agreement with you.’ I said, ‘They’ve committed to building a go-kart track, and if they build the go-kart track, we’re OK with them buying the land.”
The go-kart facility was never built. Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit currently operates in the same zoning that the go-kart track would have operated on, which is 15 acres of Commercial Rural Recreation Zone.
“When we put forward our plan to the municipality, we had to give them all these assurances in order to get the zoning, one of which that the karts would not operate any greater than 82 decibels, and that we would leave it tree-barriered.” Alexander said. “The municipality didn’t do any of those with the GAIN Group.”
Natasha Horsman, manager of communications and strategic initiatives for the Municipality of North Cowichan, said “the [track] has retained a noise expert company out of Germany to do more studies and North Cowichan has attained an acoustic expert from California to do a third party review of the German company's work.”
The municipality was reluctant to offer any comments about the conflict between the track and the neighbourhood association because of an ongoing legal dispute between the two groups. The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association is suing Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit.
The municipality responded to the noise concerns saying there is data to review to understand what experts are saying around potential noise mitigation.
“And the need for [mitigation] based on the actual noise being produced,” Horsman added.
The GAIN Group is donating money to local community groups as part of its community engagement program. Wallener argues the donations are a way to convince people to be in favour of the track’s expansion plans.
“They’re handing money to community groups in the hopes that when it comes to a public hearing, they’ll be like, ‘we can’t vote against the track because they gave us this and that,’” Wallener said. “I think there is a parallel between the way they hold their advertising budget over publishers and how they hand money out to community groups.”
Since the Circuit opened in 2016, the GAIN Group has donated $50,000 a year to the Cowichan District Hospital, and also donates the use of its club house for a women’s group called 100 Women Who Care Cowichan. For Rimmer, this raises questions around the ethics of philanthropy.
“When someone says come to our car show and we’ll give you $50,000, that's a tough one to give up,” said Rimmer, who is an emergency room physician at the hospital.
Edge said that since newspapers are losing staff, it’s more difficult to cover the range of stories they used to cover, and newspapers don’t have the space to cover them if they did have staff.
“The space is dictated by the number of ads they sell,” Edge said. “It’s hard times all around for newspapers.”
Read more: Municipal Politics