How to Approve a Racetrack While Nobody's Looking (and get away with it)
Many people think that the controversy around the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC) is just about noise. But it goes far beyond that - our investigation into how a motorsports facility was approved without any public consultation uncovered serious flaws in the system at North Cowichan. Based on what we learned, here is a step-by-step guide for quietly approving a racetrack while nobody's looking...and getting away with it.
Step 1: Keep the public (and their elected representatives) out of the decision-making process.
If you want a racetrack in your community, your best hope is to make sure the public doesn't know anything about it until it's already built. Remember: it's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission! Fortunately for North Cowichan, they have a system called "Delegated Authority" whereby Staff - who are not accountable to the electorate - have complete decision-making authority over a development project, with no need for public input or Council approval. The idea is to ease the workload for Council by allowing Staff to deal with simple, straightforward applications that don't require rezoning or other variances. But it also provides a useful tool for keeping controversial projects out of the public eye.
In any other jurisdiction, the idea that a proposed motorsports facility would be considered a simple, straightforward application with no input needed from the public or city council would be met with utter disbelief. It only takes a few minutes of Googling to discover that everywhere motorsports comes up against residents there are battles and lawsuits. Anybody who wants to build a track these days understands that months, or even years, of consultation and noise impact studies will be required. But not here in North Cowichan!
They decided that no rezoning was necessary, which not only fast-tracked a land sale that netted them $1 million, but also made sure the public knew nothing about it.
Step 2: Find a way to justify the existing zoning.
Now that you've decided your racetrack project doesn't need a rezoning application, you need to justify that decision. In the case of North Cowichan, that was a challenging task. The property they sold to VIMC was in the middle of a subdivision process that got halted in its tracks: part of it was zoned for industrial use and a smaller part was zoned for a racetrack. But hey, nobody actually reads the Zoning Bylaw, so just make the explanation sound really complicated and you'll probably get away with it!
North Cowichan came up with a great solution: they decided that a private motorsports club was actually an industrial "vehicle testing facility". Have you ever heard of an industrial testing plant that offers $50,000 memberships and a clubhouse? It's ridiculous, of course. By this logic, the Cowichan Aquatic Centre is not a recreation centre - it's an industrial swimsuit-testing facility! But it gave North Cowichan an excuse to keep the zoning "as is", thereby avoiding a pesky public hearing.
It's also a really good idea to avoid the word "racetrack". That sounds noisy! North Cowichan decided to call it a "test track", which was pretty clever. Unless you happen to know a lot about motorsports, you won't know that a "test track" is a place where race car drivers go to practice. It's just like racing, but without the prizes. Some people might even think it's a place where you take cars for a test drive before you buy them, especially if you tell them the place is being built by a group of car dealerships. That sounds peaceful and quiet!*
But in all these convoluted explanations, North Cowichan completely ignored the bit in the Zoning Bylaw that clearly states you cannot combine uses on split-zoned properties. Perhaps they missed it, or perhaps they were hoping that nobody would ever dig deep enough to notice.
Step 3: Cover your tracks.
Now that you have a complicated justification for not rezoning, thereby avoiding a public outcry over your plans for a racetrack, you need to make sure that nobody ever figures out that your explanation doesn't actually fit with your zoning bylaws.
In the case of North Cowichan, "vehicle testing facility" was a convenient smokescreen for approving what is effectively a racetrack (and without the public knowing), but that term is not listed anywhere in the Zoning Bylaw. So after the municipality decided that VIMC was a "vehicle testing facility", they quietly added it to a draft of the new Zoning Bylaw, which was supposed to be adopted later that year. Had that process gone ahead as planned, "vehicle testing facility" would have been legitimized as a permitted use with no-one being the wiser. Normally, adding a new permitted use to the zoning bylaw would require a public hearing, but a zoning bylaw review is kind of like an omnibus bill: with so many components, it's easy to hide a tiny little phrase in there and hope that nobody will notice.
Unfortunately for North Cowichan, the review process was put on hold, and to this day "vehicle testing facility" is not in the Zoning Bylaw. But never fear! VIMC has submitted a rezoning application - drafted with the help of municipal staff - that proposes to add "vehicle testing and driver training facility" to the Zoning Bylaw. It has been so long since the original approval of VIMC that nobody is going to notice that this is just a clever and convenient way of legalizing something was not legal in the first place.
Congratulations! You are now ready to go ahead and approve your own controversial project without those pesky NIMBY neighbours getting in your way! When they finally discover that you approved a racetrack in their quiet, rural backyard, you can tell them "it's all legal and there is nothing we can do about it". Maybe they'll just go away...
* If you watch the council meeting of April 1, 2015, at around 2 hours and 48 minutes into the video, you will hear Councillor Al Siebring state quite clearly that he understood this to be a facility where customers go to test-drive a vehicle (you'll also hear ex-CAO Dave Devana state with great authority that the cars using this track will be very quiet).