Water negotiations need public process

What is so critical about the proposed changes that Lantzville would want to reopen negotiations?

Lantzville is seeking changes to a water supply deal with the City of Nanaimo that its mayor Colin Haime says will create no more demand on the city system than what’s already in the agreement.

In fact, Haime says the amendments could potentially benefit the City of Nanaimo because it wouldn’t drive development to Lantzville.

What isn’t clear is what is so critical about the proposed changes that Lantzville would want to reopen negotiations and why Nanaimo would care to grant them.

Nanaimo and Lantzville have a long history of water talks, which began in 2005 when the two municipalities signed a memorandum of understanding. Documents, released by the District of Lantzville, showed the initial focus had been to supply city water to more than 600 homes in lower Lantzville. That changed, however, after Nanaimo offered a formal agreement in 2011 only to claw it back in a matter of months because of potential water supply issues. District staff suggested looking at pumping city water to 225 homes in upper Lantzville instead.

By September 2014, the two municipalities had a deal – with some amendments from Lantzville – and the then Mayor Jack de Jong inked an agreement that would see 225 homes in upper Lantzville connect to the City of Nanaimo water system for a $1.3 million connection cost, and the potential for another 211 homes on private wells to connect in the future. The district would also get 50 connections for new development each year, a number the community can accrue for future years if the hookups are not used.

Lower Lantzville is also written into the agreement, although its clear Nanaimo has no obligation to turn on the tap for that area until its notified the district it has secured more water supply.

The deal was agreed to in a 5-2 vote by Lantzville council, but without prior public notice and shortly after the district released a full and renegotiated agreement to residents for the first time. De Jong had pointed out the opportunity doesn’t come very often and it’s likely the best arrangement the district would be able to negotiate and Coun. Brian Dempsey said Lantzville isn’t required to transfer money until pipeline is built and connected. He also said once signed, the City of Nanaimo is committed but the district could end the deal with no penalty if it finds another source of water.

Haime, however, previously told the News Bulletin he sees the need for the 50 new development connections to instead go to existing residents.

The water issue is no doubt complex, but after years of negotiations Lantzville finally got its additional source of water —and without having to assume any financial liability until its ready to connect. It seems risky that Lantzville would want to open up negotiations, with a new city council who itself could request changes to the agreement.

Lantzville representatives went to Nanaimo city council to discuss its case for amendments after press time Monday. I’m looking forward to learning more about the desire of the district to reopen negotiations. De Jong once said that by supplying water to 225 homes in upper Lantzville already connected to the municipal water system, connections would be freed up for other residents. It would appear, as the agreement stands, Lantzville is able to grow its connections while also growing its tax base. Nanaimo too would benefit by development in Lantzville,  because the majority of residents there spent their disposable income in the city and help boost the local economy.

I have always felt supplying water, at a cost and with conditions, to Lantzville, is the right thing for this city to do, especially  because Lantzville has long struggled with limited supply and contaminated wells. But Lantzville also has to recognize it doesn’t have a lot of bargaining power and be cautious about just how much extra it asks for in case its neighbours decide to make a few changes of their own.

Nanaimo city council is willing to hear Lantzville’s proposal but wants to negotiate behind closed doors, in-camera or council-to-council. The water agreement and its history are already public, as are the changes proposed by the District of Lantzville. There’s no need for Nanaimo to pull the issue in camera, and with water being such a big issue in both communities, residents deserve to see elected officials discuss amended terms for an agreement. Too often when decisions are made in camera we lose the context and the process around which they were made.