Regional politicians faced an angry backlash Thursday from Esquimalt residents and businesses outraged by a secret plan to put a sewage-sludge plant near family homes, a grocery store and two public schools.
Within hours of learning of the backroom deal, residents were talking about petitions and protests to block the proposed biosolids treatment plant on the 4.2-acre Wilson Foods warehouse site on Viewfield Road.
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, who opposes the idea, said she was flooded with phone messages and emails from residents furious that the Capital Regional District secretly paid $17 million to purchase the site.
“They are mad,” she said. “They are upset that they have not been allowed to be a part of this process and these decisions are being made without them — and crazy decisions.”
Under the proposal, sludge would be piped from the planned sewage treatment plant on McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt two kilometres to the biosolids facility, which is across the street from small businesses and family homes on Viewfield and Esquimalt Roads, next door to the Wholesale Club store, and just blocks from Esquimalt High and L’École Victor-Brodeur.
The deal was negotiated in-camera and made public only after it was signed.
“The CRD is like the Mafia,” said Joe Rozon as he stood on his front stoop, overlooking the Wilson Foods warehouse. “I hate to say that. It’s a dictatorship. They’re not an elected body, but they can do what they want, when they want, and it seems Esquimalt is a dumping ground for everybody.”
Rozon noted that Esquimalt stands to lose significant tax revenue by replacing a commercial warehouse with a CRD facility that will not have to pay tax.
“We already lost the tax revenue from the plant … at McLoughlin Point, and how long do you think that people like the Wholesale warehouse that’s there are going to stick around … once they have a big sewage plant here?” he said.
Meanwhile, residents will have to deal with possible noise and air pollution as well as declining property values, Rozon said.
“That’s fine for me, I’m 70 years old,” he said. “But what about future generations — young kids across the street, young couples all around us?”
Rozon’s neighbours, Dave Ashurst and his wife, Natalie, joked that their initial reaction was: “We better sell before people find out.”
Dave Ashurst, who teaches at nearby Esquimalt High School, questioned the decision to place a sludge plant so near to schools and family homes.
“You’ve got a high school two blocks that way and an elementary school two blocks that way,” Natalie Ashurst added. “It’s all residential and there’s a grocery store right next door. It’s sort of a bizarre choice.”
“With Esquimalt trying to improve its appearance in the district, to all of a sudden become the fecal capital of Victoria is not what we’re going for at the moment,” Dave Ashurst said.
Blaise McDonald said the decision will undoubtedly hurt his MAC Renovations business, located directly across the street from the proposed sludge plant.
“We get a lot of walk-ins from here,” he said. “I’m sure it would deter people from coming down to a sewage treatment plant to renovate their kitchen.”
He echoed Ashurst’s and Rozon’s observations about the proximity to schools and the potential hit to Esquimalt’s tax base. “We’re right close to downtown. It’s a terrible spot for it.”
Desjardins said she’s hoping that businesses will stay put while residents and the municipality battle the proposed plant.
“We really have to focus on the decision-making process and make sure that that process hears from these people,” she said. “Esquimalt’s willing to take on its share, but not the whole share. Not everything.”
Wholesale Club’s parent company, Loblaw, said in a statement Thursday it was “not aware” of the sludge proposal and “will be following up to learn more” before deciding if it would remain in the Esquimalt location.
The CRD has a history of buying property from unhappy owners near sewage construction sites, which it did in the 1990s in Oak Bay when it built the Currie Road pump station, said Saanich councillor and CRD sewage committee member Susan Brice, who was Oak Bay mayor at the time.
The CRD made the purchases during the “hysteria” of public outrage, then designed the pump station to look like a house and later sold off the surrounding land for profit, she said.
It’s possible the CRD could do the same in Esquimalt near Viewfield Road if it proceeds, though that hasn’t been discussed yet, said CRD sewage committee chairwoman Denise Blackwell.