North Cowichan might revisit track rejection; mayor cites possible lawsuit

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring says in light of a potential $50-million lawsuit, he is asking the public and council to reconsider a decision to reject Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit’s bid to expand from one track to two.

“We’re going to vote on this again,” Siebring told members of the Duncan Rotary Club on Monday. “And I’m asking council for another public hearing … I’m hoping we can do it by the end of November.”

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After a late-night sitting on Oct. 4, North Cowichan council voted 5-2 against a second phase of the track and facilities off Highway 18. The move followed two lengthy evening public hearings that went into the next morning. In the second, exchanges became so heated that the mayor called police in case backup was needed to maintain order.

The major public objection to the expansion was noise from the track, but in the end, it was First Nations rights that swung the majority of councillors, after council received a five-page letter from Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour that criticized the plan. Siebring and Coun. Tek Manhas were the only two who voted in favour of the expansion.

The mayor told Rotary members that he’s hitting the “reset” button because of a letter from track owners, the GAIN Group, threatening legal action that the mayor estimates could require a payout in the $50-million range.

If successful, a lawsuit could put the district on the hook for $30 million (after $20 million in insurance is subtracted) — about what the district collects in taxes annually, Siebring said.

The mayor said he can revisit the third reading for the comprehensive development zone application, under the Community Charter, in light of “new information” — the legal liability the municipality might face. However, council must agree to hold another public hearing. He notified councillors on Friday.

The mayor has also reached out to Seymour in hopes they can schedule a council-to-council meeting in advance of the public hearing.

The mayor told Rotary members he’d rather have a “mouth full of simultaneous root canals than hold another public hearing on a file that’s this contentious.”

But Siebring said that after a number of “sleepless nights,” he has concluded that the community was unaware of the legal risks associated with the vote.

When the track was voted on last month, the mayor saw the rezoning application and expansion as a chance to fix a zoning headache — “remove any uncertainty around the permitted uses on those lands” — and get a raft of amenities, concessions, noise mitigation and environmental remediation in return.

The application for Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit included almost $5 million in amenities and mitigation measures.

The owners say the facility already brings $1.5 million into the local economy annually and pays $158,000 in municipal taxes each year.

The Cowichan Tribes said it wanted government-to-government consultation, saying the land is spiritually and historically important. If that didn’t happen, the First Nation wanted an archeologist on site throughout the entire development, and the protection of elk habitat.

The company responded to the second request, offering environmental observers for all major work. It also offered to extend protection for fish and water habitat to include elk habitat, and to provide a parcel of agricultural land to the municipality for purchase to protect that land for elk, said Siebring.

However, council decided that the expansion would run counter to the district’s environmental priorities and Indigenous-relations goals.

At issue was an application to put three parcels of land in North Cowichan — two industrial parcels and one recreational-use parcel — under one comprehensive development zone. It would give the company legal stability and allow for expansion of its vehicle test-track facility.

The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit, on 18.74 hectares, opened in June 2016.

At the time the first phase was developed, it was spread over two parcels of land, one zoned recreational and the other heavy industrial.

The track is a permitted use on recreational land, but on the parcel zoned for heavy industrial, it had to fit under the category of “product testing.” It’s why supporters call it a “test track” and detractors call it a “race track.”

Municipal staff at that time allowed it and the test track was built, although it’s a decision today’s municipal staff might not have made, the mayor said.

Early last year, the company asked for a development permit to authorize the second phase of its operation, creating a new five-kilometre paved circuit and an off-road circuit. (The request now includes amenities including a new clubhouse and buildings for storing and repairing motor vehicles.)

The expansion would be on 42.47 hectares just north of the existing 18.74-hectare site, most of which is under the same heavy-industrial zoning. Municipal staff instead suggested the company put the development permit application on hold and apply for a comprehensive rezoning to remove uncertainty around the land use.

It was only because the company was asking the municipality to rezone the property — lump all the parcels of land together under one development zone — that the request had to go to public hearing.

Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit said the expansion was a $36-million-plus investment that would create about 200 construction jobs and nearly 30 full-time jobs.

At the time, the mayor pointed out there was nothing stopping the company from simply asking the municipality for a development permit to develop Phase 2 as it had Phase 1, under the same zoning, avoiding a public hearing.

Still, council rejected the application.

As a result, on Oct. 15, North Cowichan received a letter from the GAIN Group asking to reinstate the original development permit application for Phase 2, based on what’s been allowed on two of the land parcels in the first phase.

The letter says that Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit spent $37 million to engineer and build the first phase, and suggests denying permission for Phase 2 would put the land use for the first phase in doubt and could ultimately force them to close the entire operation, said Siebring.

“They say that if the development permit for Phase 2 is not issued, they will be bringing legal proceedings against the municipality,” he said.

Mariah Wallener, a director with the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association, which opposes the circuit expansion, said the municipality has it wrong, however. While the first track and facilities were approved because they were on heavy industrial and recreational lands, the second phase would only be on heavy industrial land. Thus, the first phase wouldn’t be affected if the second was rejected as a non-permitted use, she said.

“I just can’t believe that we’re going to have to possibly go through all of this all over again. It’s frustrating and disheartening,” said Wallener.

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