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Understanding the Racetrack Rezoning Process: First Steps

As reported last week, the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit has submitted an application to North Cowichan to vastly expand their operations. The first part of this process involves asking North Cowichan to rezone four parcels of land that comprise the proposed 280-acre motorsports complex.

North Cowichan is somewhat unique among local governments in that they address matters of zoning before official development plans are submitted. In other words, rezoning is considered before anyone has a definitive idea of how the property in question will ultimately be developed. The argument in favour of this approach is that it promotes development by reducing the costs to developers of submitting applications. Instead of spending thousands on professional drawings of everything from buildings to sidewalks to water mains - only to find out later that the property won't be rezoned to allow the development - developers can start by requesting a rezoning. Once a rezoning is approved, then they can move forward with creating a comprehensive proposal for the development, knowing that it won't be rejected on the basis of land use.

Although this approach makes sense from a development perspective, it puts the decision-makers of North Cowichan in a difficult position. They must consider a rezoning application without knowing how the land will subsequently be developed: while some details are usually provided in the rezoning application, there is nothing to prevent a complete change in plans so long as it is consistent with the new zoning. Drawings of quaint little shops and cozy cafes submitted as part of a rezoning application could change afterwards into Big Box stores and drive-throughs if the rezoning decision-makers aren't careful.

Readers familiar with our story may recall a fitting example of this problem in relation to the property that hosts the existing racetrack. Back in 2011, council voted to rezone part of that 46-acre parcel from Heavy Industrial to Commercial Rural Recreational in order to facilitate the development of a Go-Kart track by the Vancouver Island Karting Association. Instead of a small Go-Kart track with restrictions on noise levels and hours of operation, North Cowichan ended up with a 46-acre private motorsports facility with no restrictions on noise and a whole heap of problems when that development clashed with nearby residents. It's a safe bet that nobody on council who approved that rezoning could have foreseen the mess that resulted from their decision.*

Aware of this problem, North Cowichan seeks to remind councillors and other decision makers that, when considering a rezoning application, they should consider ALL POSSIBLE USES that could arise as a result of that rezoning. This message was reiterated at a meeting of the Community Planning Advisory Committee (CPAC) earlier this week. Two directors from the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association (SNA) attended that meeting to hear the agenda item discussions around Roles and Responsibilities of CPAC and a heads-up from Interim CAO Andy Laidlaw that the VIMC Rezoning Application was heading their way.

A review by CPAC is the first step in the rezoning application. According to North Cowichan's Select Committees Bylaw, CPAC must "Advise Council on matters referred to it by Council" and "Before making a recommendation, consider the Official Community Plan and other applicable bylaws and policies". However, the precise role and powers of CPAC have apparently been under review and discussion for some time. At the meeting last week, committee members expressed frustration that they are asked to consider an application so early in the process and concerns over their ability to affect meaningful decisions that have a significant impact on the outcome. It is unfortunate that they will be asked to review such an important application before these issues are fully resolved; nevertheless, the committee members bring a wide range of knowledge and expertise to the table, and we are confident that they will give this application the consideration it is due.

Ultimately, the decision by CPAC to recommend for or against this rezoning application will depend on whether the committee views the application as being consistent with the land use designations and planning objectives specified in the Official Community Plan (OCP). They will also have to consider the impact of adding "vehicle testing and driver training facility" to the Zoning Bylaws. There is nothing in the proposed definition that would limit such activities to street-legal vehicles: it could easily apply to NASCAR and Formula One race cars. Finally, members of CPAC have to ask themselves whether a 280-acre motorsports complex is consistent with the vision for this region. The Cowichan Valley prides itself on its natural beauty, wineries, artisan communities, and farm-to-table lifestyle - is that consistent with a massive racetrack development? Is the rural residential community of Sahtlam - with its many farms, resident elk herd, and quiet ambient noise environment - the appropriate location for such a facility? Are the VIMC lands - with multiple streams and creeks, visually prominent slopes, extreme fire hazard risk, and proximity to forestry reserve and ALR land - the appropriate place for high-octane fuelled cars travelling at excessive speeds?

The SNA is putting together a comprehensive report to address these issues, and we hope to be able to present this information to CPAC in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

* to read more about the original rezoning decision, please download a copy of our report, "Approved as a Permitted Use" which details the zoning history of the VIMC property

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