Water wars: to build or not to build in Cedar?

Continue development moratorium until water system improvements can be made, or use development to pay for those improvements?

North Cedar Improvement District Chairman Peter Johnson surveys the property the district intends to acquire to improve the district's water supply.

Chicken? Egg?

The conundrum of which came first is as old as the sandstone at Roberts Memorial Park.

In Cedar, the latest instalment of this eternal debate can be boiled down to two choices.

Should development get underway now and be used to help subsidize an expensive series of water improvements?

Or should development remain halted until improved water infrastructure is in place to support that development?

It’s a question residents of a majority of the community’s 1,300 homes probably haven’t spent too much time pondering as they cook, shower and do the dishes.

But for a conservative core of water board trustees and a growing number of frustrated property owners it is threatening to drive a hard wedge between neighbours.

Development is on hold in this rural community and has been since a moratorium enacted in 2010. Based on an engineering report, North Cedar Improvement District trustees decided the community water system was maxed out and additional development could put fire protection at risk.

Since then, the trustees have developed a plan to add additional wells to feed the community while also preparing for reservoir construction and the installation of an Island Health-mandated filtration system.

But with the land targeted for the wells still property of an owner who is unwilling to sell, and plans for the filtration system unconfirmed despite a looming May 31 deadline, some are saying the trustees have dropped the ball.

And that’s where you get into “he-said, she-said” territory.

According to the trustees, they need all of a 10-acre chunk of property at 1723 Cedar Road in order to tap the wells, build the filtration plant and operate and maintain each. It’s an expensive, regulated path, one they feel they have to tread slowly in order to protect the water supply and the pocketbooks of the ratepayers. And given the time and money invested so far, they insist it is the only viable option.

Regional District of Nanaimo Cedar area director Alec McPherson disagrees.

According to McPherson and other critics, the district needs only a lease or right-of-way arrangement for a small portion of that property. The money saved by not buying the land can be repurposed to help pay for the plant and other infrastructure. They also suggest lifting the moratorium now can accelerate the process and lessen the blow to the individual ratepayer by broadening the tax base.

“We need to have enough people who have enough knowledge that they know enough to ask the right questions,” McPherson said. “I believe there are people out there who will tell you the water is there. There are other ways of doing this. The property they need is way less than that.”

NCID chairman Peter Johnson said two separate engineering firms have confirmed the supply issue. As for the suggestion the infrastructure be developed without the NCID owning the land, the water board says that’s just not realistic.

“Would you spend millions on a lease?” Johnson said. “Our main objective is to own the land. We aren’t in a position to spend millions of dollars. What about 20 years down the road?”

The filtration plant is mandatory due to health regulations. Construction of it alone is estimated to cost between $3.1 and $3.6 million, an expense that will have to be approved through referendum. McPherson worries that price tag is a big hurdle that will prevent the NCID’s plan from coming to fruition.

“That’s too much. The community will reject it. Based on what I’m hearing that’s a non-starter.”

Complicating the issue is the fact that the property in question is a focal point for the commercial development of the village centre called for in the Cedar Official Community Plan. Owner Wayne Procter has assembled a number of properties in the area in order to develop a mix of commercial and business developments. He suggested development of those properties could help pay for the water infrastructure.

Procter did not respond to Black Press requests for an interview, but he laid out his position in a piece published in a recent issue of a local monthly magazine called Take 5, in a space typically allotted McPherson. He disputed the water board’s contention the entire property was needed, and any suggestion the site had to be publicly owned.

He said he approached the board with alternative proposals that allow him to keep his land while he helps expedite construction of the filtration plant, but was rejected.

“The community is stagnating with ever-increasing water tolls, parcel taxes and other costs being borne by the static pool of taxpayers,” he writes. “There is no consideration given to this viable alternative approach. One needs to ask ‘why?’”

Johnson was upset McPherson provided space for Procter and called the piece misleading.

“(Procter’s) interference with the district’s long-planned site acquisition to develop a badly needed enhanced water supply and build the required treatment facilities is the central problem faced by the district,” he said.

According to Johnson, Procter has been offered the full appraised value of the property. If the offer is not accepted, the board intends to expropriate the land.

The trustees bristle at suggestions the water supply is being used as a cloak to shield an anti-development agenda.

“We are trying to do our due diligence for our ratepayers,” trustee Bob Loos said.

“The board has worked very hard,” Johnson said. “We’re not trying to hold back anything.”

McPherson did not question their motivation, only their actions, or lack thereof.

“I have no idea what their motives are,” he said. “They need more input from people who know what they are doing. This is what happens if you set yourself on a course and if you can’t listen to other people.

“Last year they said they would have it all fixed up by this year.”

The timing of this latest political exchange is no coincidence. North Cedar Improvement District trustees are chosen at an annual meeting that typically can draw fewer than a dozen residents. Last year, in the early stages of this controversy, the election drew about 60. This year’s meeting, scheduled for April 27 may draw more.

Voters can choose to examine the plans and studies the current board has posted online and ponder the alternatives proposed by their critics.

Or they can answer the simple philosophical question: should the community use development to fund infrastructure, or use infrastructure to dictate the pace of development?

Both sides are certainly suggesting their course of action is in the best interest of the community.

“The trustees consider all matters regarding the water supply to urgent and have been diligently working on those issues solely for the benefit of our community, and not for any individual person or entity,” Johnson said.

“I will tell you right now there is a need to get things underway,” McPherson said. “Seven years without getting anything done is unbelievable.”



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