A public meeting on a controversial gravel mining plan nearly broke down Tuesday night as angry residents pummeled Fraser Valley Regional District directors for more than three hours.
Not only were the FVRD board directors on the hot seat about the plan to locate future gravel mines in the region according to a proposed three-colour mapping scheme, they were also raked over the coals for the “secret” negotiations that led up to the Aggregate Pilot Project.
Most of the 200-plus audience that filled Evergreen Hall in Chilliwack came from the Lake Errock area in Electoral Area C where complaints about existing gravel mines and the proposed APP have festered for years.
The one positive note heard during the meeting — a call for a “fresh start” to the planning process that would see the B.C. government use its purchasing power to control gravel mine locations — was almost lost in the bitterness over the lack of public input into developing the APP.
At one point, an awkward silence ensued when it emerged that neither FVRD staff nor board members could explain why an area in Hatzic Prairie where gravel mining had been banned was changed to allow possible mining because the negotiations had taken place during “in camera” meetings that excluded the public.
FVRD officials have argued that electoral area directors represented the public at the APP negotiations between the B.C. government, the gravel industry and the FVRD that started in 2004 under the direction of Abbotsford-Mission MLA Randy Hawes, who was then-minister of state for mining.
FVRD chair Sharon Gaetz chaired the Tuesday meeting attended by all the regional district directors.
Lawyer John Conroy, a Hatzic Prairie resident, demanded to know what “evidence” was used to justify changing the APP map.
“I want to know how that strip deemed unsuitable for a (gravel) pit in 2009 was deemed suitable in 2012,” he said.
“If I don’t get an answer from you (Gaetz) or staff, I will go somewhere to compel you to answer,” he said, suggesting that the Supreme Court of Canada would favour constitutional rights over provincial legislation.
When Conroy persisted in his demand, Gaetz finally cut him off at the mike, and called for a five-minute “recess” in the meeting.
But in an apparent offhand remark, Gaetz then asked Conroy’s wife, who was next in the line of speakers, if her husband “always got his way at home.”
Conroy and others in the audience were outraged.
“She’s not following her own rules,” resident Elizabeth Pellizzari spat. “They’re totally putting us down.”
Gaetz apologized for the remark when the meeting resumed, but still admonished the crowd that she would adjourn the meeting, if she could not get the audience under control.
“We are all grown-ups in this room,” she said.
MLA Hawes later answered Conroy’s map question saying he believed a “mine-able supply” of gravel had been identified in the area, so it became a yellow rather than a red area, in the APP’s mapping scheme.
However, Hawes said he believed the area “should never have gone to yellow” and that it would not be approved for mining in any event because of the very slide and flood hazards that Conroy and his wife Sharie had spoken about.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going to happen,” he said.
Ted Carlson, a Surrey-based gravel company owner and a director at the Aggregate Producers’ Association of B.C., said he doubted that one per cent of the total yellow area in the region would be mined.
He also said that even the 49 per cent coloured green would still require that mines meet the same federal and provincial environmental standards as today.
“There are no short cuts, no freebies, no free passes,” he said. “We still have to get every single permit and jump through every single hoop,” he said.
“If you think this (APP) is a rubber stamp, you couldn’t be more wrong,” he said.
Glen Thompson, Friends of the Chilliwack River Valley spokesman, said the unruly public meeting was proof of the “failure” of the APP to resolve conflicts.
“I consider this a dismal failure because it doesn’t end conflict gravel,” he said.
He said the APP offers no incentive to gravel companies, and he proposed that the B.C. government, the largest purchaser of gravel, could influence mine locations by buying only from mines “not harming communities.”
Hawes said the aim of the APP is to give local government a measure of control over mine locations, which is currently under the sole jurisdiction of B.C.’s chief inspector of mines.
“If people don’t want that (control) … we can call it a day and go back to having a free-for-all,” he said.
Walter Neufeld, a vocal critic of the APP, said residents have lost faith in the system as a result of the way the APP has been handled.
He asked Gaetz that if FVRD directors were supposed to represent the public during the APP negotiations, how many actually held meetings with constituents to hear their views.
“Our understanding is there were no meetings,” he said.
And yet now rural residents are “supposed to be comforted” by the “special” meeting called by the FVRD, he said, “which means absolutely nothing.”
“The only thing that means anything is what you will do with this flawed APP,” he said.
The FVRD directors will consider what they heard at the public meeting, and then decide at a later meeting whether to approve a memorandum of understanding to begin implementation of the APP.
If the MOU is approved, a soil removal bylaw will be developed and submitted to the directors for approval.
The bylaw will be the “primary tool” of implementing the APP. Further public consultations will be required to make any required zoning changes or amendments to official community plans.
A vote is not expected until near the end of this year.
Note: Lea Ricketts did not use the word “racist” at a the meeting, as reported in an earlier version of this story.
The word was improperly attributed to Ricketts by the reporter, who apologizes to her and to Mayor Sharon Gaetz for the error.