Councillors lay out their rationale for approving OCI project

By Mark Squibb | July 8, 2021

There was only one item on the agenda, but a special meeting of Conception Bay South council on June 29 lasted almost an hour.

That’s not surprising given that one item was whether to approve the controversial OCI Long Pond harbour development.

The chairman of council’s planning and development committee, Rex Hillier, brought forward the motion to approve the application.

He began by noting that just that afternoon the Office of the Citizens Representative found the province was incorrect in releasing OCI from an environmental assessment.

“We haven’t received that in any official fashion, because as we’ve said so many times, that’s provincial jurisdiction, so we’ve just received it third hand,” said Hillier. “But I certainly respect the work that’s been done by the Citizens Representative, and I respect the work of our own residents, who have concerns about the ecology of the pond and have gotten this issue to the attention of the Citizens Representative.”

Hiller said council’s job that night was to vote on whether to approve the project pending the province confirming an environmental assessment or postpone the vote.

“Given that the Town has done its work, and even with this decision this evening there are other regulatory permits that need to be straightened out from the feds and the province, we have decided to go ahead and bring this motion forward, pending the province confirming its position on the environmental assessment,” Hillier said.

He then brought forward the recommendation to approve the project, subject to receipt of approvals from other regulatory agencies including the provincial government.

Councilor Gerard Tilley seconded the motion.

Deputy Mayor Richard Murphy then put the motion up for discussion.

Hillier had the floor first. He noted the project has been in the hands of the planning and development committee for the last 10 months, and that in that time three or four modifications had been made.

“Our committee has not brought any of the other proposals forward for ratification because there were flaws in them, that we as a council, and local residents, had significant concerns,” said Hillier. “Over the winter, OCI took those concerns and went away and developed this plan that we have in front of us here today. It mitigates against some of the concerns that were expressed by our residents. We feel that it strikes a balance between the industrial users of the harbor and the recreational users, and those that live in the vicinity of the pond. And this evening our committee is pleased to bring forward this motion for council’s consideration.”

Ward 1 councilor Darrin Bent next took the floor.

“In my six-and-a half years on council there hasn’t been a proposal or application before us that has seen so much attention from council, or the public — nothing has come close,” said Bent. “I want to let the residents know that I appreciate your meetings, and calls and emails, both for and against, and some neutral.”

Bent said he had concerns with earlier versions of the proposal from OCI; specifically, the location of the wharf was a safety concern. He said the interference of the use of the harbor seemed to be one of the biggest concerns of residents.

“I’ve said many times in the chamber, and at economic development committee meetings and as part of the town’s tourism committee, that I believe Conception Bay South could, and should, be one of the province’s recreational boating capitals, and I don’t want to see that goal affected in anyway,” he said.

The new proposal, said Bent, will see an expansion of the current commercial dock that will benefit the town for decades to come.

“The council wanted a better plan from OCI, and we got one,” said Bent.

That plan, Bent added, will cost OCI an extra two to three million dollars.

Bent also highlighted the benefits of industrial growth.

“Commercial tax dollars are important to our town. St. John’s, Paradise, and Mount Pearl see much of the work in their towns funded by commercial tax dollars,” said Bent. “But we lag behind here in CBS. Our residents are paying the bills in our town. In other towns, commercial taxes pay those bills. This has to change. It has to change. Our residents are taxed enough already. Are you paying enough municipal taxes? I know you are. I know I am.”

Bent warned that without more commercial tax revenue, council will not be able to hold the mil rate steady. He also had strong words for some nay-sayers.

“I know there are some residents out there that want us to pass on this investment,” said Bent. “They feel the dock shouldn’t be expanded on the industrial side of the harbour, and I’ve heard some of them say that the jobs that are coming, they’re not good enough, or the taxes won’t be enough or the economic spin off for our local economy is unknown, that it’s not good enough. Well, I’m here to say that that’s ridiculous. It’s insulting to people looking for work, it’s insulting to people who are concerned about the taxes they pay, and it’s an affront to our local business community that employ people right here in CBS.”

Councillor-at-large Kirk Youden echoed several of Bent’s statements, including his view that the original proposal did not strike a balance between the recreation and industrial sides of the harbour.

“I think the revised proposal certainly moves that proposal to the commercial side of the harbor and it certainly addresses a lot of those concerns that I initially had,” said Youden

He noted the town obtained the Long Pond port and established a port authority with the goal of making the port a sustainable economic driver for the town.

Youden also touched on the need for more commercial tax revenue.

“Everything that we do, residents pay 90 percent, and that’s an imbalance that’s not healthy, and we said several years ago that we want to be open for business, and that we want to treat fair companies that are coming in fairly and equitably, and we want to make the best decisions for the town of Conception Bay South residents. I think this proposal, and other proposals in the future, are taking us along that path,” Youden said.

Councillor-at-large Cheryl Davis had the floor next. She said the process applied to the OCI application was a thorough one.

“The work on this application has been second to none,” said Davis. “The decision to be made is an important one. Serious and important deliberation has occurred. I can assure council and residents that I have kept an open mind. The feedback has been helpful, having received numerous messages, emails, phone calls, and people have from time to time spoken to me personally and privately. While the public comments have often been negative, I have also received numerous comments in favour of this project.”

Davis said that when the town became aware of the province’s decision to release the project without an environmental assessment, town staff discussed that decision with the province.

In the end, said Davis, the town’s only option was to accept the province’s decision to not have an environmental assessment.

Davis that that any application, whether a road or home or a large-scale project such as the OCI application, will have an impact on the environment, and while the OCI application was not perfect, she believed it will be a good project for the town.

Ward 2 councilor Junior Bursey added that he believed that for this past term, council did it’s best to serve the residents of the town. He said that for the last year council has been put through the metaphorical gutter over this project.

“For every mile of road you go through, you go through two miles of gutter,” said Bursey. “This last year, to say the least, we’ve all been through the gutter on this project. But we kept our head up high, and focused on what’s best for the town, dodging bullying and intimidation, only from a few.”

Bursey said he has heard from many residents who support the project.

“One person said, ‘Why do you guys put up with that from the public, and is it worth it?’ My reply was, ‘Yes, because we all love the town we live in.’”

Ward 3 councilor Gerard Tilley reminded folks the town required a land use impact assessment (LUAR) in the absence of the provincial environmental assessment.

“In all my years on council, this has been by far one of the most intense land use impact assessment reports that I have ever seen completed for a project in Concept Bay South,” said Tilley.

The LUAR addressed many concerns expressed by residents, concerns that included coal storage operations, noise, traffic, odor, lighting, waste, flood risk analysis, mapping, climate change, flood risks, and more.

“A lot of people said that we didn’t listen,” said Tilley. “This report right here tells me that we did listen, and that we tried our best to make sure that we addressed all of those concerns of residents… To say that we did not listen to the concerns of residents is simply a false statement to make. The proponents have made several changes to the location of the plan to ease concerns for area residents.”

Tilley said that for his whole life, the harbour has served both industrial and recreational uses, and the latest proposal addresses the concern of harbour access for recreational users.

“With this updated development plan, the navigation path used today by boaters travelling from the inner pond will be safe,” said Tilley. “Recreational boaters and cod fishers will still have access to Conception Bay no different than last year, no different than yesterday, no different than today, and no different than tomorrow. People will still be able to go out in their kayaks, still be able to go out in whatever kind of floating device they use and they’ll still get out there safely. Council did have some serious concerns once again brought up by concerned citizens, regarding the potential for flooding tidal movements and ice jams, so much so that council commissioned a second study. These findings came back and advised that there would be limited chance in these areas with the proposed infill by OCI.”

Tilley said he gladly listened to the concerns, but he had to take into consideration that, “some of those opinions may have been more from the heart than from professional experience.”

“They live in the area, and I don’t think they’re fussy on the application in the first place,” said Tilley. “So, I took time out of my busy schedule and reached out to other folks in the marine industry, and they concur with the findings of the report that I showed them.”

Tilley also addressed social media, the battleground in which much of the war was waged.

“We tried to work with most people to address their concerns, but in the end, there was no happy medium other than in the end, the proponent not building on the land they required from the Long Pond Harbour Authority,” said Tilley. “Day in and day out, there is a continual barrage that we are not listening, and this is simply not true. There is a huge different between not listening and not liking the answers that they hear.”

Tilley also reiterated the need for more commercial taxes.

“Our commercial tax base is about 15 per cent of our general revenue,” said Tilley. “How many times do I read on social media, ‘Oh, I wish we had this like Paradise,’ or ‘I wish we had this like Mount Pearl,’ ‘I wish we had this like St. Johns.’ Ladies and gentlemen, those three places that I just mentioned have an extensive commercial tax base, bringing in ten times the money that the Town of CBS brings in. We rely heavily on our residential tax base to operate our day-to-day. People want upgraded parks. They want more playgrounds. They want better infrastructure, paved roads, sidewalks, continuation of water and sewer services. Folks want community centres, art centres. Seniors want better tax breaks. Ladies and gentlemen, attracting better business, like OCI, is how we get the necessary business tax to offset these enormous costs. Are the taxes from this one company going to solve everything? No, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Councilor-at-large Christine Butler joked that by the time the discussion came around to her, other members of council had already said much of what needed to be said.

“I’m really pleased that after the original proposal, which was not what anybody wanted, that OCI was able to go back, listen to the concerns of residents, town staff, and councilors, and we were able to come up with a revised project, something that would work for everybody.”

Butler repeated what other councilors said about the need for a stronger commercial tax base, adding OCI will pay $630,513 in taxes over a ten-year period, as well as water and sewer taxes.

Butler estimated that when that’s combined with estimated fees to be collected over a ten-year time period, the project will provide $750,000 in direct revenue.

Deputy Mayor Murphy was the final councilor to speak.

“I think that this is a win-win situation for the town of Conception Bay South, along with the residents,” said Murphy. “I’m certainly not going to try and rehash everything’s been said. I appreciate everything that’s been said, and I agree with everything that’s been said.”

Murphy added the navigational channel for recreational boaters will be almost twice as wide as it is now.

“It will be 120 meters away from the opposite side of the shore,” said Murphy. “And just as a comparison, the opening to the harbour is only 78 meters. So, it’s going to almost double the width when the recreational boaters want to go in and out of that area.”

Murphy said that he struggled with the proposal at first, especially as he felt it would have a negative impact on residents, but that given all the information, he does not feel there will be any negative impact.

He also took a moment to address attacks that come, largely form social media users.

“I understand people are pretty passionate, and I respect respectful comments and concerns,” said Murphy. “What I don’t like, and what I disrespect, is when it reaches a level when individuals accuse municipal politicians of lining their pockets. Accuse municipal politicians of being in bed with the developers. And accusing municipal politicians of being only interested in their own families. I think that stoops to a new low and I’m certainly disappointed.”

With that, Murphy called the vote on the motion to approve OCI’s application. It passed unanimously.

Mayor Terry French was not part of the meeting and did not vote due to a declared conflict of interest.

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