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Riverside Wal-mart Angers Tyee Town

The Campbell River and its fish define the namesake community's mythology. Now Wal-mart wants to squat at its mouth.

Quentin Dodd 18 Feb
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CAMPBELL RIVER - The first blasts of grapeshot have been fired in what may turn into a white-hot citizens' revolt in this usually quiet Vancouver Island town. As has happened in fairly small communities across North America, Wal-mart is planning one of its big-box stores. There are mixed feelings about that.

What has upset large and growing numbers of people is the proposed location - just 100 feet from the estuary of the Campbell River estuary made famous by local conservation and angling author Roderick Haig-Brown.

Millions of dollars have been spent to restore the river's salmon runs by local residents, environmental foundations, nature conservancy groups, and the municipality. They've installed new rearing and spawning channels, and developed parks, trails and conservation areas along the banks of the river in the area. Now residents and visitors can enjoy a restored estuarine environment, with its birds, wildlife and vital salmon.

The recently created Myrt Thompson Trail, named after a much-loved resident who particularly prized the beauty of the area and the surrounding community, stretches down one bank of the river right into the heart of the estuary's revived fish habitat. The municipal council plans to put in a bridge across the waters of the estuary, to link the trail to a spit of land where a new park has started to be developed and where plans are under way to install a cruise-ship terminal.

Does that sound like an environment where no member of city council would want to even consider allowing commercial or industrial development? Especially in a municipality with a fully developed Estuary Management Plan, which calls for the eventual removal of all industrial activity along the banks of the estuary and the continued restoration and improvement of the fish-oriented recitation area?

Council position uncertain

Sadly, some members of council, including long-standing members, and perhaps enough of them, have indicated support for the rezoning required for the Wal-mart. The change would affect a 12-acre area between the river and the old Island Highway. The area includes a large stand of firs and other trees overlooking the river.

Wal-mart wants to develop an 111,000-square-foot store, complete with acres of paved parking for 700 vehicles and 40,000 square feet of potential expansion development. right smack next to the widely used Myrt Thompson Trail. If first and second readings of the propozed rezoning are approved by council, the plan will go to a public hearing tentatively slated for March 22.

There are many people in this fish-crazy community - the home of the big tyee salmon after which this website is named - who are truly insulted that the importance of those fish and their crucial estuary may well be swept aside.

Those fish are at the pinpoint centre of the whole ethos and culture of this town, yet that ethos is seriously at risk in the rush to new development, prompted in part by the economic downturn in mining, forestry, and fishing.

It was to Campbell River's very fishiness that thousands of people were drawn. I should declare myself undoubtedly as one of them. I arrived in 1977. I was fortunate enough to become a member of the Tyee Club five years later, after catching a required minimum 30-pounder from a rowboat. I have covered the resource industries and the environment beat as a professional reporter and writer in this community for more than 25 years. I was honoured to become a director of Tyee Club and privileged to be appointed as the club's current environment-committee chairperson a few years ago.

Oh, and yes, Mayor Lynn Nash, who is now apparently leaning heavily towards supporting the rezoning, appointed me to the municipality's volunteer Estuary Management Commission last year, after I stuck my hand up to help the commission advise council on implementation of the restorative Estuary Management Plan.

Confession of a Tyee lover

So after visiting the trail and others along the river many times over the years, I confess I am not unbiased and dispassionate about this proposal and its environmental issues. Top of the list of considerations is not the fact that it's Wal-mart, despite all the issues that company's record and possible future activities raise.

What has so many people upset about this present slab-development proposal is, in the words of the realty industry, location, location, location. In the estuary, with projected enormous environmental and recreational impact.

The list of concerns is long. It includes possible (some would say inevitable) massive storm rainfall runoff from the acres of parking lot into the river, carrying vehicle oil, antifreeze and other toxic compounds. It includes noise and exhaust pollution, discarded garbage getting into the river, and the visual impact from the slab sides of the store throughout much of the estuary.

Noise-absorbing and bird-perching or nesting trees would be removed. Birds, fish and wildlife would be disrupted and driven away. Imagine migratory birds no longer using the estuary as a staging area; eagles no longer fishing in the area.

Imagine salmon runs being picked off by the estuary's burgeoning population of seals with the help of the parking lot lights, which are expected to be on throughout the night. Something like that happened on the Puntledge River in Courtenay years ago when a new bridge was installed with bright lights shining over the water.

The proposed store's delivery bays and garbage area would back directly into the estuary, and the store's 35-foot-high walls would be a lasting legacy to generations of people still to come.

Wal-mart a fickle partner

Whether they will continue to contain a functioning store after a while would be up to Wal-mart, which by some estimates has hundreds of stores standing empty across North America. Another may be empty soon in a small Quebec community, following the first unionization of a Wal-mart store. And Campbell River has long claimed to be a strong union town, based on its pulp and paper mill, mining companies, and fisheries and forest industries.

But I digress. The debate is not about jobs. Jobs are needed, but there are other potential locations for Wal-mart and other big-box stores in the general vicinity, even if Walmart says this is the best and closest site to the downtown that's big enough for its needs.

A growing list of groups and individuals are firmly and determinedly coming together against this development in this location. They rally at the river each Tuesday morning with council member Morgan Ostler, widow of former Mayor Bob Ostler, who started preserving Campbell River's waterfront and ocean views back in the 1980s.

The Tyee Club doesn't like the proposal, the Campbell River Environmental Committee is working against it, the Estuary Management Commission voted overwhelmingly the other day to recommend council reject the rezoning application, and some political organizations are starting to speak out.

Native issues complicate plan

Unfortunately, the Campbell River Indian Band, which has a reserve immediately adjoining the site, have also been brought into the mix.

The band holds an option to buy the site from TimberWest. It says it needs more housing, and the rezoning proposal allows for increased housing density. The proposal would also provide economic benefits and job opportunities, they argue. The band has noted that First Nations have long been victimized in B.C. and they ultimately hope to have the site included in their reserve as part of a proposed treaty settlement.

That does not alter many people's thinking that the location is just not right for a big-box store. Businesses in the downtown core were ravaged by the band developing a new shopping centre, with SuperStore, Zellers, Canadian Tire and Staples, on the band's expanded reserve 10 years ago - less than a half-mile down the highway from the proposed Wal-mart.

In the business community, many store operators and others say they don't mind the increased competition, that competition is healthy. One said he would like to have the Wal-mart directly next to his hardware store, because it would attract business to him.

Opponents say the big-store proposal for the estuary would "wreak havoc" in the area, and growing numbers of say any council member who votes for the rezoning application is putting his or her political career on the line in November's municipal elections.

Based on environmental considerations alone, said one resident: "Any person whose reasoning suggests locating [this store] in the estuary is wise needs to call those men with the funny white coats with long sleeves that tie up behind the back."

Just sign me: A Concerned Citizen.

Quentin Dodd is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Read a Related Tyee Story: Wal-Mart on the Rez by Sarah K. Cox  [Tyee]

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