The City of Port Alberni has served Western Forest Products with a notice of expropriation for the Somass Sawmill lands.
The mill has been indefinitely curtailed since July 2017, the company citing a lack of fibre and uncertainty over the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber agreement as reasons for the shut-down. Western also owns Alberni Pacific Division (APD) Sawmill in Port Alberni.
The land comprises 43 acres of prime waterfront industrial property in the centre of the city’s waterfront—both the mill site and parking lot. It is the same area where the city envisions creating a “quay to quay” walkway from Victoria Quay at Johnston Road to Harbour Quay at Argyle Street.
“It’s a big step; very significant,” Mayor Sharie Minions said. “It’s probably the most important property within the City of Port Alberni: 43 acres of waterfront land right in the heart of our community. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any action on redevelopment of this site, or alternatively, re-opening the site as a sawmill. So council felt compelled to take this action.”
A municipality may serve notice of expropriation under Section 31 of the Community Charter for the purposes of public use, economic development or redevelopment. It is a rare use of the charter, but not unprecedented, Minions said.
“This is not a step we took lightly…it was very much a last resort option,” Minions said. “We expect there to be some frustration (from Western) and unfortunately there is frustration on our end as well.”
She said council hopes they can still come to a negotiated agreement with Western Forest Products on sale of the land.
“This is not our first choice in the way to move forward. We feel so strongly about the absolute necessity to be involved in the conversations about the future of these lands that we had to take this step.”
Minions said council would like to see a mix of public, residential and light industrial use on the lands. If the city is successful in obtaining the land a master planning session will take place to decide how best to use the property. She said one thing is clear: there will be public access to the waterfront in whatever redevelopment plan is chosen.
“In a community that has limited access to waterfront, as well as limited access to industrial lands, it is a critical property for us moving forward,” Mayor Sharie Minions said.
In a statement emailed to media Tuesday afternoon, Western Forest Products said “we have reached out to the City of Port Alberni to understand why they have taken this step. Western has a long track record of working cooperatively with our municipal partners to identify ways we could help achieve their strategic plans.
“We remain an open and committed partner to the City of Port Alberni and look forward to continuing to work together to identify a path forward.”
Minions said the city has indicated to both Western and provincial officials that they would like to see the sawmill fully operational again, but if Western cannot commit to firing up the mill then they want the land redeveloped “in a manner that best addresses the current and future needs of our community for both public use and economic development.”
“We would have preferred to work with Western on a negotiated offer on this property,” Minions said, but Western has been reluctant to negotiate. That has frustrated the city to see 40 acres of prime waterfront property sitting idle, the parking lot being used to store woodchips.
“You operate your facility or you redevelop it. We can’t have 43 acres of land sitting vacant in our community for almost half a decade.”