Company says it's willing to buy idle sawmill property, as Port Alberni mulls expropriation

With the City of Port Alberni serving notice that it intends to expropriate 43 acres of ­waterfront industrial land from Western Forest Products, a rival lumber producer has made it clear it would be happy to buy the land to save the city the hassle.

The Langley-based San Group, which has already invested about $100 million in Port Alberni over the last four years, said it is still interested in the site of Western’s Somass sawmill, which was idled in 2017.

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“San still wants the site and would love the opportunity to negotiate on the site with Western Forest Products,” said spokesman Mike Ruttan. “We believe we can turn it into much higher value for the community.”

Ruttan noted that the San Group has already established milling operations and a large value-added plant, and has taken control of one of the city’s deep-water berths for global shipping.

He said the 300,000-square-foot value-added plant is sitting on 25 acres of industrial land that sat idle for about two decades.

“San believes it can revitalize the Somass site the same way,” he said.

The San Group said it approached Western four years ago about buying the site, but got no response.

Western shut the mill down in July 2017 to reduce costs amid the uncertainty of the softwood lumber dispute with the United States and ongoing log-supply challenges.

In a response to the Times Colonist, Western did not address why it wouldn’t sell the site, or what it planned to do with it.

In its emailed statement, the company said it has reached out to the City of Port Alberni to learn why it wants to expropriate the land.

“Western has a long track record of working co-operatively with our municipal partners to identify ways we could help achieve their strategic plans,” the company said. “We remain an open and committed partner to the City of Port Alberni and look forward to continuing working together to identify a path forward.”

In its own statement, the City of Port Alberni said expropriation is not a step the council takes lightly.

“City council considers expropriation to be a tool of last resort, and has only authorized the expropriation of the lands after significant discussion and thought,” it said.

Council had identified redevelopment of the idle lands as a top priority to diversify its economy and provide better waterfront access to the public, it said.

“The meaningful use of these lands is foundational to the vibrancy of Port Alberni,” said Mayor Sharie Minions. “Western’s failure to operate their facility or alternatively to redevelop the property has gone on far too long, compelling city council to take action.”

The city has said it would prefer the mill to reopen. But in the absence of a commitment from Western to do so, it will complete the expropriation process and redevelop the lands in a manner that best addresses the current and future needs of the community for both public use and economic development, Minions said.

Ruttan, a former mayor of Port Alberni, called the ­expropriation plan risky.

He said by going that route, the city will take on any liability that comes with the land, have to pay the current owner for it, and forego property taxes.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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