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UPDATED: Judge's ruling vindicates ECO Depot opponents
2012 ended with vindication for those who fought so hard against the proposed ECO Depot in Cowichan's south end.
In a 17-page decision delivered Dec. 31, Justice G.R.J. Gaul ruled the Cowichan Valley Regional District could not have used the controversial and now-abandoned 22-acre site at 3224 Cameron-Taggart Road because it lacked the proper zoning for recycling and waste use.
Working on behalf of site opponents Dara Quast and the CT (Community Together) Group, lawyer Stephen C. Chapman successfully argued the CVRD's position the site could be used under the "utility" zoning was incorrect.
"The term 'utility' as it is used in the CVRD’s Bylaw 985 does not include recycling services and facilities or solid waste disposal services and facilities," Gaul writes. "The only plausible, efficient and acceptable definition of 'utility' is the one advanced by (Quast)."
While CT Group spokesperson Joe Gollner called Gaul's ruling "delightful," he remains dismayed the CVRD moved ahead with depot plans despite the zoning concerns.
"The CVRD didn't look before it leaped, ignored it when people raised objections, then tried to bully the community," he said of the site purchase for $651,000.
"I don't know (CVRD's) motivation for taking this crucial step," Gollner said, theorizing the board may have wanted the waste facility as part of eventual south-end incorporation.
CVRD Chairman Rob Hutchins said the board's rationale was determined after consultation with CVRD lawyers. But he declined to release that confidential, written opinion Thursday, without a staff nod. The board declined earlier CT Group and media requests for that opinion during the ECO Depot dispute.
Hutchins said CVRD directors were disappointed by Gaul's ruling, but respected it.
"We'll continue to learn from this and try to list all (allowed zoning) uses," he told cowichannewsleader.com Thursday. He said recycling and waste transfer are permitted utility uses in other south-end areas, though not in Area B Shawnigan.
Gollner said a rezoning hearing about utility use back when the question was first raised might have cleared all the smoke.
But Hutchins explained a zoning hearing wasn't needed as staff and the board believed the site could accommodate recycling.
"The challenge for us is we've used the utility definition for years for placing our recycling bins," he said, adding those bins are a service resembling an ECO Depot.
Also, it's tough to list all possible uses for a zoned parcel, he noted.
In a report released in June, CVRD staff pegged the cost of the failed project at $1.3 million, including the site cost, plus $600,000 for consultants, legal fees, meetings and a $50,000 referendum. Gollner figures about $375,000 should be added for staff time. Now, with Gaul ruling the CVRD is on the hook for Quast's legal fees in this case, Gollner thinks the total taxpayer bill could be close to $1.7 million.
Gollner said CT members used a dance, yard sale and donations to raise about $25,000 to mount its case.
Hutchins declined to comment about Gollner's numbers.
"Most of the ($1.3 million) will be recovered by the sale of the site," he said of the property likely to hit the market this year, he said.
Nonetheless, it'll be a bitter public pill, one lawyer said.
"This is just one more surprising aspect of what appears to have been mismanagement of a project that is undoubtedly very expensive for CVRD taxpayers," L. John Alexander of the firm Cox Taylor tells Quast in a letter copied to cowichannewsleader.com.
Quast's suit was heard in Victoria court in September and October of 2011 as part of a concerted public effort to prevent the CVRD from proceeding with the recycling and waste transfer station at the site.
The CVRD abandoned its plans for the ECO Depot after the public voted overwhelmingly 65% against them in a November 2011 referendum.