THE ISSUES OF 2011: Controversy took hold on several topics

News Bulletin readers had plenty of fodder to fill the letters section.

What a year for controversy in Nanaimo.

From a provincial tax referendum to urban farming, to supportive housing to unwanted electronic gadgets, News Bulletin readers had plenty of fodder to fill the letters section.

 

Harmonized sales tax

Topping the list of contested issues was the August referendum on the either hated or loved harmonized sales tax, which was eventually rejected in B.C. by 54.73 per cent of voters in late August.

Sweeping, unprecendented and hotly debated by both pro and anti HST camps, the issue divided Nanaimo and B.C. residents, businesses and politicians, and forced former premier Gordon Campbell out of office. The debate spawned forums, protests and petitions provincewide, and also sparked a campaign to have Liberal MLAs recalled, including Parksville-Qualicum MLA Ron Cantelon.

The defeat of the HST created new topics of controversy: How to pay back $1.6 billion to the federal government, and how long it should take to reinstate the provincial sales tax and GST. For those who opposed the tax, 18 months to shift back was simply too long.

 

Supportive housing

No issue in Nanaimo was more vitriolic, venomous or inflammatory than that of low barrier housing.

With each location announcement, more and more residents filled Nanaimo city hall’s council chambers, incensed at the perceived lack of public consultation offered by council on the projects.

It began with residents in the hospital district in the spring, who learned that they would have two 36-unit, low-barrier facilities built in their neighbourhood that would house homeless addicts and people with mental illnesses.

Council absorbed the sometimes heinous verbal assaults and relented somewhat by temporarily shelving the Bowen Road facility.

The issue grew red hot again in September when another facility in the city’s north end was announced.

Hundreds of residents filled council chambers four times in an effort to get the message across that they were unhappy with council’s approach.

One group, Concerned Citizens of Nanaimo, formed to make low-barrier housing an election issue.

Facilities on Hammond Bay Road and Boundary Crescent will go ahead, and the Bowen Road location will be built only if there is demand.

 

Urban gardening

The issue of urban gardening in Lantzville was also tossed back and forth like a hot potato.

What began as a neighbourly spat grew and grew and grew until it took on a life of its own.

Dirk Becker and Nicole Shaw of Compassion Farm were ordered to cease and desist working their one-hectare farm, where they grew various crops to sell at farmers’ markets. A complaint over manure odours and water quality concerns was filed and lines in the dirt were drawn.

Pro-urban gardeners argued that locally grown food should be encouraged, not discouraged, and that everybody should have the right to grow food on their property.

Opponents agreed locally grown food is important, but the processes used to grow such large amounts of food, including using manure and employing workers, went against current residential bylaws, bylaws that have been created to protect people from water contamination and to protect residents from being invaded by unwanted odours and pests.

The heated debate has slowed as Lantzville council continues to work toward a new bylaw to better accommodate urban gardening. Compassion Farm still operates, and a new, more urban garden-friendly council was elected in NovembeR.

 

Electronic sensitivity

Unwanted electronic gadgets and wireless telecommunications towers sparked some electric debate during 2011.

Telus proposed three cellphone towers – one in Hammond Bay, one in south Nanaimo, the other in Cedar – to improve cell coverage in the area. Rogers also proposed one in Lantzvile.

Nearby residents opposed all the towers, citing unknown health effects, particularly for children who attend Hammond Bay School, not far from one of the proposed sites. Residents in that area won, forcing Telus to find another location, while the others are still in the proposal stages.

Smart meters also drew the ire of those sensitive to Wi-Fi.

Opponents have claimed everything from the meters being classified by the World Health Organization as a Class 2b carcinogen (so is coffee), to being marketing tools that can read bar codes on food items in people’s refrigerators and pass the information on to grocery stores.

Nanaimo city council offered weak protest to the province through the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, but only after contractors had begun the installations. Most homes in Nanaimo have smart meters, with completion expected early in 2012.

 

Railway rebirth

Rejuvenating passenger service on the E&N Line is vital to Vancouver Island’s economy, will take cars off the road and will encourage tourism in the area, or it is a complete waste of time and money and has no chance of a resurgence.

It depends on who you ask.

While the debate continues over the viability of passenger service from Victoria to Courtenay, questions over the Island Corridor Foundation’s approach to securing funding to bring the line back up to industry standards have risen.

Earlier this year, a provincial report said the estimated $104 million to fix the line was simply more than it could afford. Instead, ICF asked for just $7.5 million, with matching funds from the feds, to begin the process, with anticipation of more money being made available in the future.

The province won’t pay up unless the feds do, and there is no indication yet they will.

The push to reactivate the passenger service took a hit when VIA Rail removed the Budd cars used for passenger service from storage at Nanaimo’s Wellcox Rail Yard, shipping them to the mainland.

Opponents say passenger service on the Island is dead and the money should be spent elsewhere, while proponents argue once a reliable service is established, demand will grow and will benefit the region.

 

Others

u The worldwide Occupy movement arrived in Nanaimo in the fall, camping out at Diana Krall Plaza.

Protesters were asking for more financial equity in society. The city allowed them to occupy the public space – at least for a while. Six weeks after their arrival, the city evicted the 20 or 30 protesters through a court injunction. They left peacefully.

Readers were divided on what to make of the Occupy movement. Some agreed that too few are controlling too much of the world’s wealth. Others thought the occupiers were simply freeloaders who are too lazy to work and too dumb to study.

u A standoff between the Vancouver Island University Faculty Association and university administrators in March left students in limbo.

The strike lasted one month with a formal agreement ratified in April – several oustanding issues dealt with through a mediator – and classes resumed just in time to save the semester for students.

The timing of the strike led many to wonder if the faculty had the students’ best interests in mind. The university was forced to refund almost $1 million in tuition fees.

reporter2@nanaimobulletin.com