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Wal-mart Stalled on Banks of Campbell River

Council move pleases crowd opposing box store on prime estuary site.

Quentin Dodd 4 Apr
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Campbell River near proposed site.

The Battle of the Big Box Store continues in Campbell River, where the grassroots action force trying to stop the development of a 111,000-square-foot Wal-mart close to the edge of the community's designated Heritage River recently won a temporary victory.

To the cheers of a packed public gallery, members of council unexpectedly put off giving first and second reading to a bylaw to rezone the site. Instead, they decided to send the whole issue back to staff for reassessment once they have received the results of a growing list of studies being demanded on such things as environmental impact, socio-economic implications and affects on the local vicinity’s traffic patterns.

Mayor Lynn Nash reminded the capacity crowd that, just like all other municipalities, this City Council is required by law to give first and second readings to any rezoning application, no matter whom it’s from. It can only give any proposal a knock-down punch after that.

Still, the setback for the area’s few supporters of the proposal was greeted with loud applause and bought the proposal’s opponents a little more time to get organized and set up groups to look into the studies and different aspects, as laid out to date.

A town galvanized

On-site weekly rallies continue and have been switched from Tuesdays to Saturdays, and the organizers – initially rallying under a female member of council whose late husband was mayor back in the 1980s - have decided to use the long-dormant non-profit Campbell River Estuary and Watershed Society as a titled vehicle to bring the different sections and facets together.

The proposal for the big box store, for six acres or so of paved parking, for rezoning to allow high-density housing nearby (also immediately adjoining the estuary) and to provide for an extra 40,000 square feet of expansion room for the store, has become the main hottest topic of conversation in the community. Opposition is growing to the store locating anywhere where it could visually or physically impact the estuary area.

The issue is expected to make or break some council members’ political fates in the municipal elections in November.

Council members voted by a clear majority to send the whole proposal package back for further information, study and report – as well as clarification from the company over where the river-setback line should be. A spokesperson for Wal-mart’s development consultants acknowledged at the meeting that there was serious confusion over that rather critical issue, based on information from aerial photos and layout maps at a public open-house a few days before.

Land tied to Timberwest and native band

Numerous other issues and concerns also surfaced from that information session, held on Campbell River First Nation and Indian Band reserve because the Band holds first options to buy the site from TimberWest.

The Band has been forthright in saying it needs more land for housing and intends to get the 12 acres or so involved in the multi-million-dollar proposal put back into reserve status. If they can do that (and it would require approval through federal legislation), there would be nothing to stop the development of whatever the Band wished.

A top Wal-mart official said several weeks ago the company fully expects to shell out anywhere between $12 million and $15 million to put the store in, with about $15,000 in donations to local charities and non-profit projects chosen by its “associates” (employees) in the community.

Blue-collar Campbell River prides itself on the diversity of its economy, even though that has been somewhat flattened here as in many B.C. coastal communities, in the past eight years or so.

River nourished economy

Time was when that economy was almost entirely based on the major run of big chinook salmon that the First Nations guides used to refer to as Tyee, the name now given to the fish of that species weighing 30 pounds and more. It was on those that the first "fishing lodge" here - actually a small gathering of canvas tents - was set up back in the 1920s on what is now called the Tyee Spit, a narrow sand-and-gravel bar of land which sits at the entrance of the estuary, immediately across the estuary from the proposed store site and also opposite the world-famous Painter's Lodge.

Today's lodge, now a modern complex of resort buildings, was eventually established by and of course named after the owner-operator of the original fish camp, J.P. Painter. Long-since world-renowned, to many people the lodge is synonymous with the town’s Tyee Club whose members and guides row and paddle off the river mouth to catch the big fish which are a requirement of membership.

When Wal-mart revealed its intentions to set up a slab-sided box store on property set back just a matter of metres from the edge of the Campbell River, no advance public consultation had taken place, except with the Campbell River First Nation or Indian Band, which has a reserve immediately adjoining, and superficially in a few opening discussions with municipal council staff.

So the proposal unveiled just before Christmas came as a severe shock to many people, who had moved or chosen to stay here because of its natural beauty and connection to the ocean and fishing. The community is interlaced with hiking and walking trails such as the one named after late local estuary resident and outsdoorsperson Myrt Thompson, whose daughter has since joined the Battle of the Big Box Store.

Chamber of Commerce quiet

Practically every organization in the community with any connection to the estuary and its recreational opportunities and contributions to the area’s tourism and fishing, has come out firmly, adamantly and openly against the proposal. Letters to the editors continue to pour in to local papers, provincial party nominees in the area have indicated their concern, and speakers at the rallies have been encouraged to stick just to the numerous environmental issues regarding the siting. (Full disclosure: this reporter has joined in protests against the proposed store site.)

But there has been a deafening silence from much of the business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, given that a new Wal-mart here would keep local customers in town and discourage the 60,000 or so residents of Vancouver Island from Campbell River north from coming down to the Courtenay store to shop.

One member of council confided that council has to try to “stay in good” with the Campbell River First Nation because it has to deal with it on a number of other issues and development proposals.

So Campbell River’s angling fanatics and environmentalists have scored an early victory in the opening stages of the Battle of the Big Store, but it promises to be a long, drawn-out fight spread over an indefinite period.

Conservations concerns

The protesters gather on the bank of the Campbell just a few hundred metres below the house once owned by internationally renowned conservationist and author Roderick Haig-Brown. And large foundations such as the Pacific Salmon Foundation and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which have pumped millions of dollars into salmonid-enhancement and spawning-bed and side-channel development on the river, look on with concern.

A board member for one of those told me recently that of course they are tasked with making sure that donations to their cause are spent wisely and responsibly. So, if a big-box store does go in the estuary area, they would have to think twice about whether to support river restoration and improvement projects in future.

Quentin Dodd, based in Campbell River, is a regular contributor to The Tyee. Read his earlier article about Wal-mart’s plans on the Campbell River here.  [Tyee]

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