Any expansion plans by the long-standing lumber mill in Cowichan Bay may have to be put on hold.
The advisory group assisting the Municipality of North Cowichan to review and renew its official community plan has recommended to council that it re-designate any industrial designations in an estuary to one that “better protects the resources there”.
At the council meeting on Oct. 20, Mayor Al Siebring said the municipality has three major industrial installations on waterfronts, but the Western Forest Products’ mill in Cowichan Bay is the only one that is specifically on an estuary.
He asked Rob Conway, North Cowichan’s director of building and planning, what it would mean to the mill, which has been in operation for decades and employs more than 100 workers, if North Cowichan were to change the designation of its property.
Conway said initial mapping had shown an industrial designation for the site, but the site had never been zoned for anything.
He said it’s possible the OCP process could provide direction for a different designation that’s not compatible with the industrial use that’s currently occurring there.
“But the mill is existing so if an OCP was adopted with the kind of designation at the site that was incompatible with industrial use, the mill could continue to operate,” Conway said.
“The use of the mill could continue as long as the operation is legal nonconforming [which is the use of land or structure which was legally established according to the applicable zoning and building laws of the time, but which does not meet current zoning and building regulations]. So the mill could continue to operate with no restrictions on the existing operation.”
But, Conway said changing the designation would limit the ability of the mill to expand, and if it should shut down for at least six months, WFP may lose their right to continue their operations at the site.
Siebring pointed out that the forest industry is cyclical in nature, and closures of at least six months could happen at the mill.
Conway said, typically, the mill’s owners could continue operations at some minimum level so it would not lose the right to operate.
“But, strictly speaking, if all milling operations were to cease for six months, the owners would lose the right to continue operations,” he said.
Count. Tek Manhas asked if WFP were to sell the mill to new owners, would they have the right to continue to operate.
Conway said the legal nonconforming status would be transferable to the new owners.
Coun. Kate Marsh made a successful motion that the recommendation be sent to MODUS Consulting, which has been hired to help North Cowichan with the OCP review, to incorporate it into the draft OCP that will be submitted for consideration at a later date.
“I’d like to see how the public feels about this,” she said.