First Nations drummers make their presence known in the lobby of the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre in advance of a public hearing on a proposed rezoning of property owned by the Cowichan Motorsport Circuit. Cowichan Tribes has been opposed to expansion plans at the site. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)

North Cowichan rejects Motorsport rezoning for a second time

Mayor says majority of the community wants to risk lawsuit

After almost six hours of input from the public, North Cowichan councillors once again rejected Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit’s bid to expand its facility.

The second round of hearings into the proposed rezoning application was necessitated after Mayor Al Siebring determined additional information had come forward after the initial hearing and rejection of the expansion plan in early October.

RELATED: Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit proposes $36 million expansion

Siebring announced that he was exercising his power to ask council to walk back their decision not to approve the rezoning and have council reconsider its vote, revealing that turning down the rezoning had opened the municipality up to a possible $60-million liability.

Monday night’s hearing at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre drew a large crowd and more than 90 speakers expressed their opinion on the issue, with about 80 per cent opposed.

Just after midnight, the six councillors and Siebring voted 6-1 to defeat the rezoning bylaw.

The surprise of the night came when Siebring switched to the no side after voting for the expansion at the earlier meeting. Only Coun. Tek Manhas supported the expansion bylaw.

“I have to acknowledge what I heard here to night,” Siebring said, stating that he had prepared two sets of comments and went into the meeting with an open mind.

“The clear majority are saying take the risk,” Siebring added, in reference to the possibility of a huge lawsuit against the municipality.

Several speakers urged council to fight the lawsuit and others called the possible action by VIMC “a bluff” and “a bullying tactic.”

Siebring’s turnabout drew loud applause from the audience, many of whom had been loudly critical of the mayor’s stance and comments throughout the hearing.

The presence of First Nations elders and Cowichan Tribes members who stressed the importance of the property near Mt. Prevost and expressed concerns about the environment clearly made an impact on council, including Siebring who said the words of one speaker, Shawn Johnny, hit home for him.

“I’m really disappointed in the friction this is causing our community,” Johnny said, adding one person told him, “you people think you own everything” as he entered the hall.

“That was the thing that impacted me the most,” Siebring said just before he announced his no vote.

The five councillors who voted against the expansion said they were voting against the expansion but not acting to shut down the existing operations at the track, known as phase one.

“This is not about shutting down phase one,” Coun. Chris Justice said.

Coun. Rob Douglas agreed.

“My concerns about wildlife and the Somenos watershed still stand and there was significant opposition from Cowichan Tribes,” Douglas said. “But this is not about shutting down phase one.”

Late last week, a lawyer representing Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit told the municipality his client would not be attending the public hearing.

RELATED: Vancouver Island Motorsports Circuit pulls application, headed to court

In a letter to the Municipality of North Cowichan Sean Hern, a partner in the law firm that represents the VIMC, said the Circuit has chosen instead to proceed “in accordance with its legal and equitable rights” on the issue.

He said VIMC made that decision after council decided on Dec. 4 not to issue a development permit for the expansion.

Before adjourning at 1 a.m., council voted to rescind second reading of the controversial expansion bylaw and to amend the bylaw to apply only to phase one (the existing facility) and bring it back for third reading in January.

Siebring says that legal step will provide clarity on the permitted use for the existing track.

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