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Saanich council rejects Watkiss Way sewage site in tight vote

Owner of 12-hectare ALR property wanted site forwarded for evaluation by CRD; council says no in tight vote

The possibility of a centralized sewage treatment site across the street from Victoria General Hospital is effectively dead after Saanich council refused to send the 12-hectare property to the Capital Regional District for consideration.

On Monday night, council voted 5-4 to reject further consideration of the Watkiss Way property, with the majority arguing that sewage treatment facilities shouldn't be built on agricultural land outside Saanich's urban containment boundary. The urban containment boundary protects rural land from most forms of development and would require a public vote for an exception.

"There's some misunderstanding maybe that we didn't look at this site, but at the CRD they did look at this site and evaluate it, high level, and the CRD directors turned this site down," said Coun. Judy Brownoff, who voted down the proposal along with councillors Dean Murdock, Susan Brice, Vic Derman and Vicki Sanders. Mayor Richard Atwell asked for further information from Brownoff about the CRD's previous rejection of the site, but Brownoff said the discussion had occurred in-camera.

"I don't support an industrial use like this in the ALR and I don't support opening up the Urban Containment Boundary," Brownoff said.

A positive vote would have allowed the site to undergo technical analysis at the Eastside Select Committee, a regional group comprised of regional CRD directors and staff from Victoria, Oak Bay and Saanich who are responsible for evaluating the most acceptable sites for sewage treatment. A similar Westside Committee is comprised of officials from Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood, View Royal and the Songhees Nation. The committees have already shortlisted "technically feasible" sites across the CRD, but had asked private land owners to submit property for evaluation before June 24. The Eastside group required private landowners to get approval from their local council before forwarding land for consideration; no such restriction existed at the Westside Committee.

Coun. Leif Wergeland, who voted with the minority, said while he had strong views about not allowing sewage treatment on the ALR, the public would still have an opportunity to weigh in on the site, should it be selected at the CRD.

"I think it's important we let our citizens decide … I think it was the sense of the (Eastside) Committee that the whole process was going to be open to the public, they would be very much involved," Wergeland said. "I hope we don't get caught twice in not allowing our residents to have a say in where they'd like to have a sewage treatment plant."

Mayor Richard Atwell agreed and argued council was shutting down public process by rejecting the Watkiss Way site without more information. Coun. Colin Plant noted sewage treatment sites have already been built on ALR land in both Sooke and on the Saanich Peninsula, and said council should keep an open mind until it has more information.

"We aren't experts. I think it would be in the interest of our residents to forward this to CRD, simply for consideration," Atwell said. "Whether or not this is technically feasible, we'll figure that out down the road."

Peter Ferguson, an engineer who did preliminary evaluative work on the Watkiss Way site for its owner, Allen Vandekerkove, told council the site contained ample space for both wastewater treatment and biosolids processing facilities. Ray Parks of BIM Consulting, also speaking in the interests of Vandekerkove, said VGH had expressed interest in harvesting recovered heat and gas from the sewage treatment process.

Ferguson added the site was close to the highway so trucks wouldn't need to pass through residential areas to access the site, and its central proximity in the region meant it could possibly serve both westside and eastside communities. An option was also included to build greenhouses onsite to take advantage of recovered heat and greywater, which Ferguson and Parks argued could turn non-producing ALR land into productive agricultural space.

Murdock expressed concern that by approving ALR land for sewage site consideration, council would be opening the door to other ALR land owners. Atwell reminded Murdock that the CRD had set a June 24 deadline for private land submissions, so further proposals would expire before the cut-off date.

"I'm not convinced we've exhausted all the opportunities within the core," Murdock said. "I'm not prepared to send the message that we'll offer up our ALR lands for that use."

Plant reminded his colleagues that they'd agreed to send Saanich parks land to the Eastside Committee for initial sewage site consideration behind closed doors.

"But we didn't ask the general public at the time how they felt about (parks)," Plant said. "The public came out very clearly and said no. … I've talked to so many people in the streets, they're open to new ways of doing things."

"Wise decisions don't come from preempting the outcome at the beginning," Haynes said. "That means let's include as many sites as people come forward with."

Derman voiced concern about the size of the pipes that could potentially be required to pump sewage from areas like downtown Victoria to rural Saanich, and said he found it difficult to compare the Watkiss Way proposal to other potential sites with the proponent's added "technical solutions" like greenhouses and energy recovery to VGH.

"You're looking at a site the proponent has chosen to flesh out considerably. … It becomes very difficult to make that comparison," Derman said.

Before the vote was taken, Atwell had the final word: "I think this site has huge potential and this will be a watershed moment in the creation of our sewage project. … This council will essentially be responsible for eliminating an option for the public."

Voting in favour of the Watkiss Way site for consideration were: Atwell, Haynes, Plant, Wergeland.

Voting opposed to the Watkiss Way site for consideration were: Brice, Brownoff, Derman, Murdock, Sanders.

The CRD’s $788-million Seaterra program came to a halt in April 2014 after Esquimalt council rejected rezoning for a wastewater treatment facility at McLoughlin Point along the Inner Harbour entrance.