For Shame, Cowichan Valley Citizen
On April 18, the Cowichan Valley Citizen published an article with the headline "Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit seeks to establish working group on noise strategy". The article closely followed a presentation by Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC) to North Cowichan Committee of the Whole, which was attended by reporter Don Descoteau, author of the article. It was nice to see the Citizen finally taking its place at the press table, especially given their complete lack of coverage of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association (SNA) presentation and report, "Approved as a Permitted Use", with its startling revelations about the sale and development of the VIMC property. However, if their silence on these issues hinted at any bias towards VIMC, the April 18 article was all the evidence needed to firmly cement that impression.
The article began by announcing the proposed working group, giving credit to VIMC for the initiative and failing to mention that a working group already existed. The reporter knew this because SNA directors Isabel Rimmer and Mariah Wallener were interviewed at length following the VIMC presentation, and had shared this information with Mr. Descoteau. A balanced article would have noted our lack of enthusiasm for the offer, the fact that a working group already existed, and may even have questioned why a new group was being proposed, and why now. Instead, it read like a press release straight from the public relations desk at VIMC.
The rest of the article was devoted to the Wakefield Acoustics report, which was commissioned by VIMC last fall. This is old news, and the Citizen has reported on it previously. Since that time, issues around zoning, permitted use, and the sale and development of VIMC property have come to light. Importantly, evidence demonstrating the severity of the noise problem has been published online (both here and on the Sahtlam Neighbour-to-Neighbour Facebook page), and nobody can argue by now that residents are simply "not used to it". Even VIMC has done an about-face on the issue, and is suddenly eager to solve the noise problem (shutting down their illegally-built off-road track seems to have got their attention). But the Citizen chose to ignore everything that has happened since the Wakefield report was commissioned. Instead, they dredged up old news in a blatant attempt to discredit the residents of Sahtlam and portray VIMC as going above and beyond to appease their pesky neighbours.
But since they brought it up, let's take a closer look at the Wakefield report.
While often referred to as a "noise study", by no stretch of the imagination was this a study in the scientific sense of the word. This was a set of recordings taken on a single day out of the 364 days a year that VIMC operates, during a few hours when no high-speed events were taking place.* The date and times were specifically chosen by VIMC because they knew the scheduled activities were not the sort that generate excessive noise. The conclusions laid out in the Wakefield report apply only to that day. In fact, the Citizen quotes author Clair Wakefield as follows:
"Part of a noise study [implies that] the source is operating as it typically would."
On the day of the "noise study", the track was NOT operating as it typically would. The majority of track time is devoted to private club members, who race their high-performance vehicles at top speeds around the circuit, while the sounds of those engines revving up and down reverberate throughout our neighbourhood. Had VIMC been serious about "addressing concerns voiced by area residents" they would have commissioned Wakefield Acoustics to record noise levels while the Radical race car was speeding around the track, or any of the many other vehicles that regularly generate excessive noise levels, and which the SNA requested be included in a proper noise study.
Instead, Wakefield Acoustics was instructed to record noise levels while members of the Porsche club learned "car control and balance" by weaving in and out of traffic cones, practiced accident avoidance and panic stops, and then took a guided drive around the circuit. None of these activities generate speeds sufficient to create excessive noise, a fact that the SNA pointed out repeatedly to North Cowichan council when it was suggested that this "study" be used as an indicator of the extent of our noise problem.** As predicted, the Wakefield report showed that track noise on that particular day did not exceed ambient noise in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the study results have been touted by VIMC and the Citizen as evidence that the motorsport circuit is no louder than the neighbouring highway.
The Citizen also took pains to point out that the Wakefield report found noise levels were higher on the "non-track day" (a separate day of recordings when the track was not in operation). What the Citizen failed to note is that the track day was a Sunday while the non-track day was a Friday. Not only is highway noise louder on a weekday, when logging trucks operate and daily commuters use the route, but the audio recording device was placed in front of a property where a house was being built. The sounds of "woodworking" noted in the report were, in fact, a construction crew cutting and installing cedar board-and-batten siding. As noted in the report, these sounds contaminated much of the recordings that day; but the crew did not work on weekends, so no such noise was present on the "track day". This speaks much more to the deficiencies in study design than it does to the severity of the noise problem. Nevertheless, VIMC and the Citizen have shared these conclusions as further evidence that residents are making much ado about nothing.
The Citizen article included quotes that were carefully plucked from their context to dismiss residents' complaints, such as this tidbit from an interview with Clair Wakefield:
"Wakefield noted that in his experience, when a “noticeable” and “new” noise source enters a residential environment, it can lead people to voice concerns."
Even VIMC has dropped that narrative. Given their presentation on April 13, they clearly believe action is required to address the noise problem, and they have proposed a lengthy and expensive process to do so. After a year of steady inundation with noise from the track, with the volume of protests only growing louder, does the Citizen truly believe it is fair or accurate to portray the sounds as "new"?
In light of the numerous testimonials, emails, and letters written by affected neighbours, and the amount of time devoted to the issue by Mayor and Council, CVRD, the SNA, and VIMC themselves, it is ridiculous to imply that there isn't a noise problem. It is also deeply insulting to the dozens of residents who are forced to endure the sounds of this racetrack on a regular basis, disrupting the sleep of shift workers, affecting the mental health of vulnerable residents, and ruining the peaceful enjoyment of our rural properties, the right to which is entrenched in provincial law.
The Citizen article also mentioned the voluntary noise policy that was implemented by VIMC following the Wakefield report. What the article failed to mention is that the maximum noise levels set by VIMC in their "noise policy" exceed the maximum noise levels measured by Wakefield Acoustics. In fact, at a January meeting of the working group, a VIMC representative insisted that the track could not possibly operate their business if they were forced to limit themselves to the noise levels measured by Wakefield Acoustics that day. This information was related to Mr. Descoteau, but the Citizen chose not to follow-up on this newsworthy item. Instead, they used the Wakefield report to disparage area residents, painting a picture of NIMBY's who live contentedly with the blaring sounds of "logging trucks and helicopters", and who can't tell the difference between a track day and a non-track day.
The most likely explanation for the Citizen's blatant bias towards VIMC, and their policy of silence on the many issues surrounding the racetrack, is that the GAIN group, an extension of which owns VIMC, is a chain of car dealerships who generate significant amounts of ad revenue for the newspaper. The Citizen article is deliberately crafted so as to shed doubt on the significance of the noise problem, and it does so by regurgitating old information while wilfully ignoring new information.
Contrast this with the efforts of the Duncan Free Press, whose reporter Peter Russland has attended numerous council meetings where the SNA has spoken, held several interviews with SNA directors, and wrote an informative account of the latest issues for their April 2017 issue.
This experience has left a bitter taste among members of the SNA and residents of the Sahtlam area neighbourhood, as evidenced by the comments section on the Citizen article's webpage. Our eyes have been opened to the power of advertising money and big business to spin the truth and sway public opinion in one's favour. The Cowichan Valley Citizen should be ashamed of themselves, and they owe our community an apology.
* Just as the Wakefield technicians were dismantling one of their neighbourhood noise monitors, one of the Worst Offender vehicles took to the track. A nearby resident asked them to record the vehicle, but VIMC agent Chris Erb, who was at the monitoring site, told the technician to continue taking down the monitor.
** Then-CAO Dave Devana had suggested to Mayor and Council that VIMC conduct a noise study to determine whether there was, in fact, a noise problem (no conflict of interest there!). Despite not living anywhere close to the track, Mr. Devana suggested on multiple occasions that what residents were hearing was simply the sounds of motorcycles speeding along the highway.