Some rural residents feel plagued by neighbours who use their properties as dumping grounds for construction waste—and a council that takes little action.
DAY AFTER DAY, for almost a decade, dump trucks have rolled onto a rural property in Metchosin to drop off piles of fill, changing the topography and driving copious complaints from neighbours exasperated by the industrial intrusion.
Now, next door neighbour Jo-Anne Cote is hoping that, instead of trying to survive another summer of noise and dust, an order from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALR) to stop the fill dumping will offer respite.
Cote said enjoyment of the acreage where she and her husband have lived for 34 years has been marred by activities at the neighbouring Sooke Road property—which she describes as “Mordor,” the volcanic plain from The Lord of the Rings.
“It’s a dust bowl,” Cote said, describing how problems started when all the trees and shrubs were removed, ostensibly to build an airstrip to help with a farm operation about 10 years ago.
Satellite image of the Cosburn property in Metchosin
An application by owner Stan Cosburn then morphed into a plan for a turf farm. In 2011 the Agricultural Land Commission and District of Metchosin granted permits to dump fill on 2.7 hectares within the Agricultural Land Reserve and 3.6 hectares outside the ALR to improve farming capability.
As construction in neighbouring Langford heated up, the trucks started arriving. But over the years, there has been no sign of a turf farm.
“I finally came to the snapping point a year or so ago,” said Cote. “The noise was driving me insane all summer long…all you are hearing is heavy equipment and dump trucks and the beep-beep-beep of reversing vehicles and the squeaky bulldozer.” She was frustrated by the apparent lack of action despite numerous complaints.
The 2011 turf farm notice-of-intent permit, which allowed the filling, expired July 2019 and, after Cosburn requested an extension and submitted a business plan, ALC staff visited the site in March.
“There is no turf farm there now and they were still filling,” said Avtar Sundher, ALC director of operations. “The request for an extension was declined on April 9 this year and we told them to cease all fill activities on the ALR portion of the property and then to reclaim the site with a reclamation plan by a professional agrologist,” he said.
The remediation plan must be submitted by July 31, and, if the plan is approved, work must be underway by October 31, said Sundher.
Meanwhile, the municipality of Metchosin is looking at fitting the non-ALR portion of Cosburn’s property into the remediation plans so the entire area can be topped off with soil.
Cosburn could not be contacted, but his application to the ALC describes the fill as “clean mineral soil and suitable organic matter” and, according to the municipality, he has abided by regulations. Since 2011 plans for the turf farm have been overseen by Madrone Environmental Services Ltd, a company hired by Cosburn.
Soil deposit regulations have changed over the last two years as Metchosin, in common with other municipalities close to areas of rampant development, has tried to control amounts of fill—which usually consists of stumps, rocks and other material removed for building sites.
“We are trying to tighten up our bylaws to negate some of the issues we have had in the past. We have had a lot of illegal dumping in general, but we have been trying to put the brakes on it,” said Councillor Sharie Epp.
Construction waste, which can include material such as drywall, nails, asbestos or wiring is supposed to be taken to Hartland Landfill, but Metchosin residents fear it is sometimes ending up in unregulated dumps running under the radar.
Adding to the suspicion that construction companies do not always follow the rules, piles of garbage bags of construction waste, which tested positive for asbestos, were dumped around the municipality earlier this year, leaving Metchosin on the hook for $5,000 in clean-up costs.
Recently Metchosin changed the bylaw that used to allow each property owner to bring in 2,000 cubic metres of fill (soil, gravel, rock, sand), reducing it to a maximum of 250 cubic metres a year or 500 cubic metres on larger properties, and all requests for large deposits must go through council. Eighty cubic meters of fill can still be brought in without a permit if it’s not in the ALR or other sensitive areas. There are also fees attached. A deposit of 250 cubic metre of clean fill would cost $525.
However, Metchosin is a small municipality with limited staff. Like other small municipalities, its bylaw services are complaint driven and contracted to the Capital Regional District. With many large properties hidden from view, getting a grip on dumping is a game of whack-a-mole and some Metchosin residents believe the District has become a convenient place to dispose of development debris cheaply.
The ALC order is a small victory for neighbours of the Sooke Road property, but some say it represents only the tip of a fill-dumping iceberg.
Friction between those who live in Metchosin because of the green, rural environment and “free-thinkers” who want to live in an area where they believe they can do whatever they want on their own property is at the root of much of the conflict that ends up on the desks of Metchosin councillors.
Nicole Shukin, a member of metchosinH2O, an “adhoc, but very active, group of environmentally-minded citizens,” said council seems reluctant to act, even when faced with evidence of illegal activities.
“Residents who’ve been submitting formal complaints about illegal dumping have seriously lost confidence in our district’s willingness or ability to enforce its bylaws in a manner that would deter, rather than enable, large-scale and ongoing violations,” she said.
Shukin described a shadow industry forcing the rural community to deal with unauthorized clearcutting, trucks using roads not designed for industrial use, and fears that wells and aquifers are being contaminated by construction waste that has not been inspected to ensure it is clean fill.
“Literally mountains are being blasted to bits in Langford and it needs to go somewhere and it seems to be filling up the gullies and lowlands in many areas of Metchosin,” Shukin said.
Ken Farquharson, vice-president of the Association for the Protection of Rural Metchosin noted that one problem is that the dumping will sometimes go on for years before council acts and the changed landscape is then accepted as un fait accompli.
Councillor Andy MacKinnon, a biologist and forest ecologist, said council is addressing complaints, “but not to the satisfaction of residents.” Much of the action is in camera, he explained, because the problems deal with specific individuals and property issues. “But I do share the frustration of a lot of the residents in terms of what can be done in some of these situations. Rewriting the bylaws was an attempt to make it simpler to monitor and prosecute, but most of the infractions that have raised people’s ire are with people who simply pay no heed to the bylaws whatsoever,” MacKinnon said. Prosecutions, he noted, apart from the cost, require an extremely high standard of proof. “You can write better bylaws and, if people follow them you will get better practice, but if people pay no heed, it doesn’t matter whether your bylaws are good or not; it becomes difficult and expensive and uncertain to enforce,” he said.
Shukin is a resident of La Bonne Road where neighbours complained for eight years about dumping on a property on Ash Mountain that is now the subject of legal action by the District.
Private property on La Bonne Road on which fill has been dumped
The La Bonne Road Residents Group, in a synopsis of complaints lodged with council between 2012 and 2016, list problems from illegal tree-cutting and unauthorized construction of greenhouses, to the dumping of “an estimated 10,000 cubic metres of soil mixed with construction debris, garbage, drywall.”
In 2018, after the dumping on the property was halted, the gully was covered with boulders, and the municipality conducted soil testing on the property because of concerns by nearby residents that the aquifer and wells had been contaminated.
Due to legal proceedings, however, lawyers say the results cannot be released. Legally, if tests revealed environmental concerns or health threats to nearby residents, they would have to be informed, said a spokesperson.
Accepting fill can be lucrative for landowners who want to fill in gullies or flatten hills, with prices to dump clean fill ranging from $5 to $7 per cubic yard. And if property owners are willing to accept under-the-table demolition material, the savings on dump fees are substantial. A 2019 study conducted for Vancity found a dump truck load of mixed construction waste can cost between $1,100 and $1,400 to dispose of legally, but that some property owners are accepting loads for a $200 payment “despite the threat of fines that can reach as high as $10,000.”
Mayor John Ranns said the concerns of some vocal residents do not reflect the current reality and bylaw changes mean there are now fewer problems with soil dumping—both legal and illegal—than in previous years.
“It’s very frustrating. We do have illegal dumping, but not much. We have made numerous revisions to the soil deposit bylaw and, at the moment, it’s pretty much being adhered to,” he said. “There isn’t anything contaminated. It all has to be checked and verified now by qualified professionals. It has to meet proper profiles and we have to see the weighbill,” he said.
Also, some property owners have created good farmland because soil has been brought in to fill gullies and top off rough forestland, added Ranns. “It’s not that all soil deposits are bad, it is just that there have been one or two people that have taken advantage of it,” he said.
The issue could surface again over a 50-hectare Sooke Road property where an application last year for a soil recycling facility for up to 15,000 cubic metres of soil brought opposing residents out in force. The application for a Temporary Use Permit has been dropped, but, if the idea is resurrected, Ranns anticipates that residents could be asked to consider amenities, such as potential parkland with a soil recycling plant, versus private 10-acre lots.
The property had a history of illegal dumping and, in 2016, a large fire was set in an effort to clean up the mess. That means a lot of suspicion has been generated, Ranns admitted, but the proponent, Brian Baker of Tri-X Excavating, has pointed out that material now coming onto the property is clean fill and it would be a waste to landfill it. “He’s going to be applying for industrial zoning on this property. He wants to do things legally,” said Ranns. “You can run it through a screener and then resell it. To me soil recycling is something that is quite badly needed in this region,” he said.
Which comes back to how developers deal with rubble and soil from building sites—a question the ALC frequently faces near high development areas like Langford. “When you look at all the development in the area, digging into the ground for basements, there is all that dirt,” Sundher of the ALC said; “Wherever there is construction, especially residential or high rise buildings, there’s a big hole that is excavated and all that soil needs to go somewhere.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith