HOW TO DIVIDE A COMMUNITY
Councillor Denise Haime dropped a bombshell early on in the proceedings of the marathon (7:00 – 11:15pm) Council Meeting on Monday Feb 26th. Her comments may account for the very sour mood that prevailed for the rest of the meeting and the fact that no councillor took her on about them. What have they done?
When invoked, the Nanaimo water agreement with Lantzville will cause large increases in water costs to the existing residents on the water system. Councillor Haime pointed out a number of factors that have not been addressed and that are unfair to existing residents on the water system. If you currently have a water connection it will be worth your while to spend 4 minutes listening to Councillor Haime’s remarks.
Go to the District of Lantzville website and click on TOWN HALL. Scroll down to “Council Meetings” and click on “agendas, videos and minutes” then click on “Feb 26 2018 Council Meeting” and scroll down to the video image. The crucial minutes are 44 to 48.
In her remarks which Councillor Geselbracht characterised as a “soliloquy” she pointed out for example that the bulk of the costs for the agreement-enabling pipeline on Lantzville Rd to the city boundary was paid for by current water users but exists to benefit new users, particularly developers. Fees for each future new connection will be $5,912 but will go directly to Nanaimo. She claims she had an engineer calculate the future costs to existing water users and that they indicate a 92% increase. She added, “We are not talking chump-change here”. No, but we may be talking about chumps.
It is impossible to put an exact number or even a percentage on these increases but it is also impossible to deny that residents on the water system will not be hit with them. No member of Council has tried to do so. Did they know? It seems unlikely that they were ignorant of the possibility, especially the pro-development members who have been so busy trying to hurry this along while attempting to increase OCP densities. But then we have seen this kind of situation before where Council enthusiasm has outstripped caution.
So, what does this mean? It is complicated and it is simple. First, the simple aspect; approximately ½ of current residents (those on the water system) will be hit with cost increases in order to enable development when the Nanaimo water agreement is invoked. Those residents get nothing new (except the already controversial effects of nearby densification) and they are expected to pay more, perhaps a great deal more, for the water they already have.
The complicated part? Since we owe developers nothing, let’s concentrate on the humanitarian argument. There are a handful, (perhaps both hands), of property owners in the Winds neighborhood who have real and quantifiable problems with their wells. Boron is present in at least one and others have supply problems in the summer drought. In some cases wells go dry entirely. There may be other solutions but the one that is most talked about is connecting this neighborhood to the District water system. The issue is further complicated in that many residents of the Winds neighborhood are happy with their wells and unhappy about the prospect of being expected to share the considerable costs of connecting the neighborhood and their individual properties to District (Nanaimo) water. As in all utility situations it is an all-or-nothing proposition.
There are two additional complications in getting water to the Winds; supply and infrastructure. First, supply; the Lantzville water system is tapped out – no more connections are available although this seems to change every time the engineers are consulted. So, to get District water to the Winds requires an additional source and the Nanaimo agreement seems the most logical. Second, infrastructure; the nearest District water mains are quite distant from the Winds. To use the traditional individual user-pay system (that the existing Lantzville water system was built on) to extend the main to the Winds would cost householders there tens of thousands of dollars each. This is unlikely to be acceptable, particularly to those Winds residents who are happy with their wells. What about developers? We owe them nothing and should always be asking what’s in it for us? The owners of the “Gee property” may be willing to size their water mains to include the Winds as a tradeoff for other profit-enhancing considerations such as higher densities and/or less park dedication. It seems likely that adding the Winds neighborhood to the municipal water system would require both pieces – invoking the Nanaimo water agreement and encouraging a higher density development on the Gee property. Keep in mind the small number of properties with identified well problems in the Winds.
Another complicating factor is that the existing water system has not been entirely individual user-pay. Lantzville has received infrastructure grants from senior governments for improvements to this system. These contributions make any argument that existing water users should pay nothing towards expansion a little disingenuous. It is a matter of scale.
The development aspects of these questions fall within the “simple” category. If it was a question of development for development’s sake it is predictable that most residents on the water system would say no if it meant they would be hit with large cost increases for something they already had. It would be seen as householders subsidising development since that is exactly what it would be. The plight of a number of householders in the Winds may be a tipping point and that is how successive Councils have come incrementally to the point we are currently at. With the benefit of hindsight it could be said that they have written the book on how to divide a community. It is not any single councillor’s fault – past or present – but it is incumbent upon the current members to come up with solutions. A failure to do so will be their failure alone.
As a community we must now seriously address the water needs of the householders in the Winds who have water problems. However, we must seek proportionate measures. To invoke the water agreement and encourage transformative development in disparate parts of the community in order to address water supply and quality needs for perhaps 15 (or less?) households isn’t proportionate. Are there other ways to address the water needs of these householders whose neighborhood will be largely immune from the negative impacts of the development which would be borne by other neighborhoods, not to mention the increased financial costs to those other neighborhoods?
What happens now? First, Council needs to honestly provide residents with estimates of the true costs (including those already paid) of invoking the Nanaimo water agreement, especially to those on the current system who will be getting nothing new. They need to provide costing scenarios for supplying water to the Winds. All residents need this information in order to advise their Council on how and when to proceed. If increased costs to existing water connections are anywhere near those suggested by Councillor Haime then some ameliorating methods need to be worked out. This must happen soon because development pressure is mounting and to invoke the water agreement prematurely will cause long-term bitterness in the community between those currently on the water system and those who are not. It would also create bitterness towards members of council who fail to address these issues.
The political outcome of inaction by Council or the premature invoking of the water agreement without addressing the unfair additional costs to the existing water users will be troubling to all residents, development interests, and future Councils.