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UPDATED: Fractious two-day hearing ends with a no for Cowichan Motorsport expansion

A marathon public hearing lasted for more than 13 hours over two days

North Cowichan councillors have put the brakes on a controversial expansion plan for the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit.

After a marathon public hearing that lasted for more than 13 hours over two days, council voted 5-2 against a rezoning application that would have allowed the Circuit to create a new track and other facilities adjacent to the current operation on Highway 18.

Mayor Al Siebring and Coun. Tek Manhas voted in favour of the new plan with councillors Kate Marsh, Christopher Justice, Rob Douglas, Rosalie Sawrie and Debra Toporowski opposed.

The end of the line for the expansion attempt came at 2:30 a.m. Friday morning when the public hearing that featured input from more than 140 speakers — some got up to speak more than once — wrapped up and council moved into a council meeting to debate the issue.

The public hearing was a raucous affair at times with the acrimony that has been a part of the process for several months evident as speaker after speaker rose to have their three-minute say. Allegations of dishonesty and personal comments have been a part of the dialogue on social media and some of it carried over to the public hearing that began on Tuesday night and resumed Thursday.

At one point, Dr. Isabel Rimmer, of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association, who has led the campaign against VIMC as a result of the noise she has endured for more than three years, sparked an ugly exchange.

After her three minute limit had been exceeded, Mayor Siebring gave Rimmer additional time but warned her she had gone into overtime. Rimmer kept speaking and Siebring shut her microphone off, prompting an outburst from the crowd as Rimmer kept shouting.

Siebring warned that “certain members of the audience would be removed” if they didn’t settle down.

“Over my dead body,” a man near the front of the hall shouted.

At that point, Siebring shut the hearing down and the police were called. About 10 minutes later, three RCMP officers appeared at the back of the theatre. Siebring says he had no choice but to call the police.

“Under Section 133 of the Community Charter, if I order someone out of the room for conduct that is disruptive to the process, that order is enforceable,” Siebring explained Friday morning.

“It’s RCMP who does that enforcement. It wasn’t clear to me how it was going to play out.

“I needed options that would keep order. When someone in the crowd yells ‘over my dead body’ in a very threatening manner, I think it’s completely appropriate to call in outside resources.”

The hearing was held in the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre due to the anticipated huge turnout for the event. On Tuesday night more than 500 people attended. The Thursday hearing attracted fewer people, approximately 400, but many stayed until the end.

After listening to a presentation from the municipality’s director of planning Rob Conway, more than two hours of input from VIMC’s technical experts who provided detailed analysis and explanations for environmental, archaeological, water and noise issues, more than nine hours of public opinion and reading dozens of pages of reports and opinions, the councillors each took their turn at explaining the reasons behind their decisions.

Clearly, input from Cowichan Tribes resonated with council. As well as delivering a five page letter critical of the proposed development, signed by Chief William Seymour, several Tribes members spoke at the hearing.

Elder Robert George, said he was speaking for himself, and described the property VIMC had hoped to develop as “our Garden of Eden” and explained Swuq’us (Mount Prevost) was an important element in his people’s creation story.

“I am the fifth generation in our family trying to protect our medicines, trees, water and animals,” George said, as councillors listened intently.

“One hundred acres of medicine is gone. We haven’t had too much success with colonization and dealing with people with money,” he said.

On Thursday evening, Jared Williams, who works with Cowichan Tribes elders, said he was also speaking for himself.

“After listening on Tuesday, I hear money, I hear economic growth,” William said.

“How is this economic development going to help our people? This is a very sacred place for us.”

Coun. Justice said the issue was complex and after turning to experts including Cowichan Tribes who expressed concerns about salmon, water and animals, he could not support the expansion.

Coun. Toporowski, who is also a Cowichan Tribes councillor, said there have been unwise land use decisions made on the traditional territory of First Nations people for 150 years.

“They should never have happened,” Toporowski said. “This council wants to do things differently,” she said.

Coun. Tek Manhas noted council has struggled with the Motorsport Circuit issue since “the day we were sworn in” but he was supporting the expansion proposal because of the opportunity for good paying jobs and other commitments made by VIMC including the construction of a water reservoir and providing $600,000 for other amenities.

Coun. Sawrie said she was anxious to do things differently than they had in the past.

“This has weighed heavily on us. There have been lots of tears and hugs, [but] I can’t move forward on this based on Cowichan Tribes’ letter,” Sawrie said.

Coun. Douglas also referred to the Tribe’s letter in explaining his no vote.

“The applicant has made significant commitments, but I’m still very concerned about noise and the natural and environmental impacts.”

Coun. Marsh said she was influenced by one speaker who said “we have to reconsider the ways we derive our entertainment” and Elder George “talking about creation stories” in making her decision.

“The thought of taking sacred land of the Cowichan people is untenable to me,” Marsh said.

Mayor Siebring was last to speak and acknowledged that the decision to permit Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit to build the first phase was problematic.

“It was not what I thought we were approving,” he conceded.

He accused GAIN (owner of VIMC) of reneging on a deal with the Vancouver Island Karting Association and said there were “trust issues” in dealing with the Circuit.

He touched on the issue of noise that has been most contentious since the Circuit opened in 2016 and said he had personally not observed excessive noise.

However, Siebring said he was supporting the application for rezoning based on the commitments that VIMC was making including limits on noise and cash for environmental and water projects. These commitments would be secured by covenant on the title and would force the Circuit to reduce noise on the original track operation.

“If we don’t approve this, all the other things that are on the table are gone,” Siebring said, announcing his support for expansion.

“We don’t have any way to get these things from VIMC unless it’s through covenant.”

Although the expansion plan has been rejected, it will be business as usual at the Highway 18 motorsport circuit.

Jared Williams of Cowichan Tribes spoke against the expansion plans. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)