No more building permits will be issued for Snug Cove developments requiring sewage hookups until steps are taken to solve the neighbourhood's sewer issues.
Mayor Gary Ander made the announcement in a video message last week. "We are in an unfortunate position of not being able to issue building permits that are applying for connection to the sewer because the Wastewater Treatment Plant has reached capacity and simply cannot support the demand of any new occupancy that would be placed on the system."
"Believe me this decision was not taken lightly, but it was the only responsible option for the municipality to take. I want to assure you that we are putting every resource we have into getting to the bottom of this," Ander continued.
Following heavy interest the matter became the focus of a Committee of the Whole on Monday. In addition to the building permit pause, the municipality also made a presentation on a two-phase design to solve the problem – and what it will cost.
But first it was the turn of affected homeowners to have their say. If they’re unable to land a permit there are few options to complete their builds. One is installing a septic field on their property if they wish to make it habitable. Construction can also be finished on a building without a septic field, but a covenant must be signed with the municipality saying occupancy won't be pursued until sewage hookup is available.
The septic covenant was a hotly-discussed topic at the Jan. 10 council meeting, and was ultimately the path forward for the Health Centre to continue their build.
But that isn’t an option for everybody space-wise, particularly on Cates Hill. There are about 16 properties impacted between Cates Hill and Foxglove Lane, including Robert Clayton, who lives on Rivendell Drive. He received a build permit in December, has paid a sewer connection fee, and was hoping to start work in March.
“We had no warning of this potential over-capacity scenario… I’ve invested my life savings in this project.”
Five properties, including Clayton, have active building permits. There is some hope they can be added to the proposed Phase 1 upgrades, but at the moment “Phase 1 is really only what’s already been built or started,” says Graham.
The plant will need to bring existing sewage connections up to speed before considering any new ones.
CAO Liam Edwards added “The existing Phase 1 design doesn’t look like it will have sufficient capacity to address those properties that had an application that was not yet approved. If we can determine that there could be sufficient capacity… then we may well want some degree of understanding that you may go forward with your building permit, but we cannot issue an occupancy permit until we have certainty that capacity at the plant will be there.”
The necessary upgrades, detailed by engineering director Patrick Graham, are extensive and expensive. Phase 1 will require several areas of the Wastewater Treatment Plant to be addressed, including a new concrete tank and valve chamber, transfer pumps, HVAC upgrades, and much more.
There will also be some space requirements for the project. The municipality is in discussions with Metro Vancouver to acquire about 100 square metres of Crippen Park for the upgrades.
Upgrades estimated at over $7 million
The estimated cost for the opening phase, including design, is $1.64 million. It was proposed this money come from a combination of non-statutory reserves, unappropriated surplus, and the Capital Renewal and Replacement Fund.
Phase 2 upgrades, which are meant to account for population growth over the next 20 years, are expected to cost $5.81 million. There’s no indication yet where this money will come from, although staff asked for $460,000 of it to begin the design process.
The mayor outlined several reasons for the problem in his video.
"The main issue, as we seem to commonly encounter with our aging infrastructure here on the island, obviously is money. We don’t have enough in the Snug Cove sewer reserves at this time for capacity upgrades that are needed right now. Part of this is due to the age of the municipality. We’re too young to have built up healthy reserves, but we have inherited lots of older infrastructure."
Ander also says faulty information in the past has hampered efforts. "Unfortunately staff and council in the past have made decisions based on inaccurate information about the sewer system capacity. This is something we are looking at now, along with making sure we do have accurate information going forward."
Engineering director Patrick Graham reinforced this in his presentation. He says a 2017 population assessment by the Kerr Wood Leidal engineering firm was faulty, and mixed up the distinction between ‘average day’ and ‘peak day’ flows. “That probably led to some decisions that maybe shouldn’t have been made,” says Graham.
He added former mayor Murray Skeels made this same mix-up in recent comments online. “If you want proof that we’re exceeding capacity… we have days of prolonged rain, and the flows coming to the plant can’t get through the existing bioreactors without either causing a washout… or it backs up and overflows at the head of the plant, or both. Both of those things are contravening our permit to discharge, and it’s clearly exceeding capacity at the plant.
“I don’t know where exactly this comes from but pulling numbers out of a report like that and coming to these conclusions can be dangerous,” says Graham.
Graham says studies and on-site assessments confirm the Wastewater Treatment Plant cannot handle any more flow. “It’s not academic: the plant is over capacity.”
He says Bowen already exceeded their wastewater limit in 2018 and came close again in 2020. These mandates are established under the B.C. Municipal Wastewater Regulation.
Graham adds even since 2020 there’s already been lots of development in Snug Cove, including Foxglove Lane and the new apartments along Bowen Island Trunk Road, and found it “striking that all of this development was happening without a real plan for upgrading the plant.”
And the mayor says developers need to pay their share. "In the past we were giving away, but we can do longer afford to do that. Going forward new development must contribute financially, with capital costs and any expense or requirements of our community assets."
Council wasn’t quite ready to sign off on the bill without further input, and referred the $2 million ask to the Finance Advisory Committee. They’re hoping for a report back as soon as possible.