Queen Charlotte voters have given a resounding “no” to buying a property on Martynuik Road for a future sewage treatment plant.
The final count after the village referendum on Saturday showed 322 votes against the purchase proposed by council, and just 21 votes in favour. Turnout was nearly double that of the Queen Charlotte by-election last November.
Queen Charlotte councillors will now reconsider another option — connecting with a renovated sewage treatment system in Skidegate.
“People are really engaged, and that’s good,” said Mayor Greg Martin, speaking the day after the vote.
“I believe now we’ve got a better informed public — they’re interested, they’re engaged, and they say they want to stop dumping raw sewage, so I take it as a positive.”
Martin said he expected opposition to the purchase, though the strength of the “no” vote surprised him.
In the months leading up to the vote on Saturday, many residents voiced concern about the actual cost to develop the rocky, hillside property at 4603 Martynuik for a sewage plant and then pump sewage 120 metres uphill to get it treated.
“Sometimes, when we have a problem to solve, what initially appears to be a solution to this problem isn’t the most ideal,” said Ruth Wheadon, an organizer of the Vote No campaign, writing on her Facebook page.
Engineers and village staff agreed that because of its elevation, the Martynuik Road site was not ideal.
However, the only engineering studies available suggested it would have cost up to $4 million less to develop than connecting with the Skidegate system. Council had also proposed selling lower portions of the 78-acre property for a housing development to recoup some of the cost.
But without a site-specific engineering study of the Martynuik Road site — something the village could not get grants for without owning the property — most voters found the plan had too many unknowns.
“They want certainty,” Martin said.
Martin noted that Queen Charlotte residents are still paying down a $900,000 debt for moving the village water intake in the Honna River. In a 2008 referendum, residents voted in favour of putting the intake in a different spot than the one originally chosen by engineers — a site below the old village dump.
Water at the original site tested okay, but many residents refused to drink it. One engineer said at a public meeting that if money were no object, he would place it away from the old dump just to be safe.
“For sure, that contributes to the mistrust of engineering studies,” said Martin, calling the original intake plan a “boneheaded” design.
“That’s fair enough.”
Even before the Feb. 24 referendum, Skidegate and Queen Charlotte councillors met to discuss the idea of connecting the two systems — an idea that Queen Charlotte had engineers study in 2013.
The best available estimates suggest a joint sewage system will cost over $14 million. If so, Queen Charlotte’s share would be too high unless the provincial or federal government is willing to contribute more than a conventional one-third share.
“We’ve got to start looking for that, and trying to tune up our plans to see if that’s the preferred option,” Martin said.
While owners of the property immediately east of 4603 Martynuik Road made an offer to the village, that property has all the same issues. The only potential wildcard is the bulk fuels property past the Skidegate Landing ferry terminal, but so far the owners are uninterested in selling.
“If something were to change there suddenly, that would be a game-changer,” Martin said.
Asked about the coffee chats, public meetings, and online exchanges the village held before the referendum, Martin said he was happy with the way it went.
“I give special thanks to the people who were polite and respectful, and that was the majority,” he said, adding that it’s always worth going to referendum for such major decisions.
“It’s not always the most comfortable, but it’s the most necessary.”