CVRD seeking legal opinion on heated Cowichan gravel decision

Tempers flared Tuesday at a Cowichan Valley Regional District committee meeting over a proposal from Balme Ayr Farm to process gravel on their land under a temporary use permit, leading to a denial of the permit application.

On Wednesday the CVRD’s acting CAO Frank Raimondo announced that staff had some procedural concerns with how the decision was made and nothing will be finalized until the CVRD gets a legal opinion.

The gravel processing is part of a farmland reclamation effort that Oliver and Shelley Balme are undertaking to convert 70 acres to land usable for their dairy by extracting gravel from the site in phases over the next 15 years.

The gravel extraction has been approved by the Agricultural Land Commission, against the recommendation of the CVRD.

The gravel extraction was under discussion at the Electoral Area Services Committee meeting this week. Though what came forward from staff was a recommendation to refer the application to a variety of committees and commissions for discussion and to schedule public meetings for the community to have their say, Cowichan Bay Area Director Lori Iannidinardo cut off consideration with a motion to outright deny the application.

"My area does not support this application," she explained. The farm is located in Area C, Cobble Hill, but borders Iannidinardo’s Area D. Area C Director Gerry Giles strenuously objected.

"I think that to deny an application before you’ve even undertaken a process is to deny natural justice from occurring," she said.

Giles argued that denying the permit without having any of the permit details in front of them, as the idea had been to talk about what process they should use and not the merits of the permit itself, was unfair to the applicant and to the public.

"This resolution to me is putting the cart before the horse," she said.

Giles further argued that the temporary use permit was a way for the CVRD to have some regulatory control over the operation. As things stand now, the CVRD has none Area E Director Loren Duncan expressed reservations about allowing any kind of gravel operation near a residential neighbourhood, saying he’s seen the problems firsthand.

"I don’t see a good ending to this with the neighbouring community," he said. Mixing gravel and residential "never ends well. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of dust, secondary traffic that goes with it."

Shelley Balme spoke to the directors to try to soothe their fears. "First and foremost this is a land reclamation. This proposal is about making farmland," she said, urging the board to be forward-thinking.

They would only be looking at doing gravel crushing once or twice a year, she said, and invited everyone to come to the farm and see the site, which is in a gully about 100 feet deep. The location is such that nobody would ever even see the operation, Balme said.

Iannidinardo would have none of it. "A gravel pit is a gravel pit," she stated. "I’m not going to debate here what you think is a nice gravel pit and what I believe is not a nice gravel pit."

The majority of the directors sided with Iannidinardo and the vote was 6-2 in favour of turning down the temporary use permit. Giles and Director Mike Walker were the dissenting votes.

Balme, while frustrated by the committee’s decision, said the land reclamation project remains a go. The plan is now to truck the gravel for processing to a site on Koksilah Road, then truck the resulting fill back to the farm.

"What would have been best for the Cowichan Valley as a whole?" she questioned. "Processed gravel being trucked out intermittently to the highway to Victoria or now gravel being trucked out through the Valley? The truck traffic will be [increased] dramatically."