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New Showdown for Wal-Mart Battle in Campbell River

Council to decide after three days of hearings, starting tonight.

Quentin Dodd 27 Jun 2005TheTyee.ca
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The Battle of the Big Box Store has been reopened in Campbell River and the two sides are gearing up for crucial public hearings by City Council beginning tonight.

Council members are determined to decide on the community-splitting issue of whether to let Wal-Mart build one of its concrete-slab outlets in the vicinity of the prized Campbell River estuary. They have set aside more than four hours of formal public hearings each night for three nights June 27 through 29 - and then intend to make a final decision on the company's rezoning application June 30.

The passionate debate over whether the retail giant should be given its wish to establish in such close proximity to the Campbell River (and its cherished runs of big chinook salmon) was recently rejoined after a break of a couple of months while the company put together some study reports requested by a deeply-divided City Council.

When those reports - almost entirely from studies which were carried out several months ago - were released to the public, and council finally gave Wal-Mart's requested rezoning bylaw its first and second readings, furor returned to this usually fairly quiet community.

Separate condo plan rebuffed

As the company prepared to go back before council with its new reports and revived rezoning request, more than 300 people turned out for a colourful but orderly protest rally on the lawns of City Hall, aimed at reminding council members of the depth of feeling against the proposed location of the big box store, planned for a few score metres from the edge of the Campbell River estuary.

While there may be some small support from a largely silent minority in this outdoors-oriented and fishing-centred township, the overwhelming majority of people who have voiced their opinions on the proposal through petitions and other public communications have shown themselves to be adamantly opposed to the very idea of putting the store so close to the river's fish-bearing ocean end and its adjoining parkland, walking trails and shoreline views.

In the interim, while Wal-Mart was putting together its reports for council, the community was faced with another proposed development also overlooking the estuary's fish habitat and salmon runs.

Working on behalf of a family whose own home overviews the estuary, a local developer-realtor put in a request for council to rezone a part of the riverbank on the opposite side from the Walmart proposal, so that as many as four four to five-storey condominium blocks containing well over 100 units could be built so a series of concrete walls and bright lights shining out over the water.

The proposal was roundly condemned by a stream of members of the public who turned out for the public hearing on that idea.

And in the end, City Council retracted the necessary bylaw.

That also helped to revive and re-invigorate the groups opposing and protesting the Walmart proposal when the company took the wraps off the reports and breathed new life into the estuary-store proposal, still close to but no longer quite so absolutely right next to a favourite park-like area and trail immediately along the estuary banks of the world-famous Campbell River.

Does 25 metres make a difference?

A key part of the debate shaping up tonight: Whether moving by 25 metres the proposed location of the 111,000-square-metre store now puts it far enough away from the river that the project is technically outside the estuary.

Foes of the plan see the slight shift as making little to no difference. They continue to regard the estuary as being much more than just an area of water, and voice outrage that the box-store giant is still pressing ahead with plans to put its footprint anywhere within the sphere of influence of the river.

They also distrust the narrow definition of estuary being used by top City Hall officials in this self-proclaimed Salmon Capital of the World, based on the glory days of its chinook, coho and other intersecting Pacific salmon fishing.

Leaving the estuary definition aside temporarily at least, City Council agreed (four out of six four councillors under Mayor Lynn Nash) to pull the rezoning application and its necessary accompanying change to the Official Community Plan off the shelf, giving them initial blessings so the proposal could move ahead to the next stage of democratic decision-making at the municipal level.

The proposal was also sent back to various city commissions such as the Estuary Management Commission for reconsideration of what to recommend to council. Up to now and without the study reports, commissions' members have been heavily opposed to the site as a location for the store, on environmental and recreational grounds. They wanted to see Walmart give new thought to the previous idea of a store out on the city bypass.

Opponents see this as the latest in a long series on not-dissimilar proposals by Wal-Mart for stores in areas of varying environmental sensitivity, often pushed ahead - as in this case - through the local First Nation, in the name of economic development for aboriginal peoples.

Just downstream from the Roderick Haig-Brown heritage house on the bank of the river, and in sight of the new cruise-ship terminal dock, the Campbell River Indian Band intends to develop to bring visitors from all over the world to Campbell River famed rivermouth and fisheries.

Split council

The whole issue could split City Council members right down the middle, with three councillors on each side, leaving Mayor Nash with the deciding vote.

When citizens arrive to watch Council proceedings tonight, they'll find in place new restrictions on their ability to voice their opinions, limiting comments to five minutes, at the discretion of the mayor.

At recent meeting, citizens jeered their disgust when council members were reminded that a statement from the City Administrator now describes the store as "not in the estuary."

The ranks of opponents who say otherwise is growing, including developers of the Official Community Plan, the estuary's new and long list of protectors, and an equally-lengthy list of recreational, fisheries and environmental organizations.

Members of that coalition will be on hand at tonight's meeting to fight the latest, and perhaps most crucial round, in the Battle of the Big Box Store in Campbell River.

Journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee and lives in Campbell River.  [Tyee]

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