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A racetrack by any other still LOUD

One of the more frustrating debates in the ongoing dispute between residents of Sahtlam and the Municipality of North Cowichan (MNC) is whether the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC) is operating as a racetrack.

Of the 46-acre parcel that is home to VIMC, only 15 acres are zoned C8 (which allows for a racetrack). Rather than rezone the property at the time of purchase (which would have required a public hearing), MNC staff decided it was not a racetrack, and they assured VIMC in writing that they could use the entire split-zoned parcel.*

It is possible that MNC didn't appreciate what the proposed facility would be used for. Early correspondence between VIMC and the municipality refer to a "test track" that would host "one street legal vehicle at a time" and offer "driver training". Nevertheless, MNC gave its approval and that fact lies at the very heart of this dispute: if MNC admits that VIMC is operating as a racetrack - and therefore is not a permitted use on the entire property - VIMC will almost certainly pursue legal action against the municipality for misrepresenting the property at the time of sale. The taxpayers of North Cowichan could be on the hook for the $1 million purchase price and who-knows-how-many millions spent on the track and clubhouse.

No wonder MNC keeps insisting it isn't a racetrack.

Nevertheless, the old adage "If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck..." still holds true. To anyone who hasn't been cautioned to avoid using the word, it is quite obviously a racetrack. Consider the following headlines from articles in the media:

Car race track takes shape in Cowichan Valley

Roaring opening for Island Motorsport racetrack

New private club race track

Or this excerpt from an article by

"It has not been conceived as a race track, but the reality is that VIMR is a world class race track"

The extent to which MNC is willing to deny the obvious for fear of litigation was recently put to the test when Island Exotics Racing announced it was hosting the Island Trophy Cup at VIMC. Residents immediately complained to the municipality that this was clearly racing, but MNC refused to acknowledge it as such. Instead, they took the absurd position that it was not a race because contestants would compete sequentially rather than everyone going at the same time. The declaration that timed events are not "races" will certainly come as a shock to anyone in the world of sporting events; nevertheless, that remains their position.

Luckily for the residents of Sahtlam, the race never happened. In fact, all mention of the Island Trophy Cup has disappeared from the websites of both VIMC and Island Exotics Racing, and the only evidence that remains is a handful of cached Instagram posts, such as the one shown in the screen shot below:

Our best guess is that lawyers for VIMC were not so easily fooled by the distinction, and advised VIMC to cancel the event and remove all mention of it from the public eye.

But the problem with this focus on semantics is that it completely misses the point: This debate is about zoning bylaws. At issue is the definition of "racetrack" as a permitted use in the context of zoning and land use.

The decisions as to what uses are allowed in what zones are based on the impacts such uses might have on the land itself and the surrounding neighbours. Such impacts may include traffic to and from the location, the height of buildings, and the smells and sounds coming from the location. For example, North Cowichan does not allow night clubs to operate in residential zones, presumably because of the noise and the late-night hours of operation, nor do they allow mushroom farming, presumably because of the strong odours.

Accordingly, the discussion about whether VIMC is a racetrack should focus on elements that impact land use, and the first element that comes to mind is noise. Other elements that may be relevant to zoning include exhaust fumes, spectator traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, and the fire hazards associated with high-speed motor vehicle collisions. However, in terms of a land use issue, noise is inarguably the most critical element of a racetrack when it comes to zoning. Most regions have strict regulations around racetracks - where they can be located, or whether they are permitted at all - because of this fact. Many a community has rejected applications from racetrack developers on the basis of noise and other impacts that such facilities have on surrounding communities (e.g., Rockyview Motorsports Park; Altamont Raceway; St. Peters, Missouri; USA Speedway).

To argue that VIMC is not operating a racetrack based on whether someone receives a trophy is completely missing the point: the noise generated by a world-class motorsports track upon which high-performance vehicles are driven at excessively high speeds does not vary based on whether someone wins a prize at the end of the day. The impact on the neighbourhood is the same, and in that context VIMC is most definitely a racetrack.

* The track was approved as a "recreational testing facility" , even though that term is found nowhere in North Cowichan Zoning Bylaw 2950. The SNA has argued that it is therefore not a permitted use and that VIMC is consequently operating in violation of the bylaw.

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