Residents say their concerns have been heard, as racetrack lawsuit settled in Cowichan
‘People told us, ‘You’re never going to accomplish anything. They’re too big, you’re too small,' Sahtlam resident says.
Sahtlam residents are calling their decision to drop their lawsuit against the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit a victory, although on the face of it nothing was won in court.
When the neighbours sued in 2017 — over allegations that the track is an illegal, noisy nuisance — they say they saw it as a last resort after both the track and the municipality ignored their concerns. Today, they say, their situation has improved dramatically and their concerns have finally been heard, so they no longer feel the need to keep fighting in court.
“It’s a feel-good message for all small communities out there: Don’t be afraid to stand up for your neighbourhood,” says Mariah Wallener, who co-founded the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association to address residents’ concerns about the track. “People told us, ‘You’re never going to accomplish anything. They’re too big, you’re too small.’”
The plaintiffs delivered the signed settlement papers to their lawyers on Feb. 27, 2019. According to the settlement, the circuit agreed to waive all costs from the neighbours’ lawsuit, so the neighbours don’t owe them any legal fees. And the neighbours agreed they won’t sue the track again for any nuisance complaint related to this lawsuit or evidence submitted up to its settlement.
Wallener says the track originally suggested a settlement late last year. Though she says those negotiations fell apart, they inspired the neighbours to reevaluate their strategy and ask themselves if the lawsuit was still their best use of resources.
Reached by phone, the motorsport circuit’s general manager, Paul Rossmo, declined to comment on the settlement. But in a letter posted on Facebook, he says “everyone in Cowichan wins” as a result of the end of the lawsuit.
Rossmo says the track has always followed the law and given back to the community. “We came to Cowichan to be part of it,” he writes in his post. “We purchased land from the Municipality of North Cowichan. We applied, like anyone else, for a development permit, which the Court has now said was properly issued. We turned vacant industrial land into a modern vehicle test facility that pays local taxes, hires local people and has contributed over $150,000 to local charities and non-profit organizations.”
He also alleges the plaintiffs dropped the case in response to confidential evidence that came up through the court’s discovery process. Though he says he’s not allowed to disclose the evidence in question, he says the motorsport circuit nonetheless “took the high road,” agreed to settle and waived the neighbours’ legal costs “that would have been held against those people personally.”
“That was the right decision to make, but difficult for us to do, given the misinformation, bullying and racist attacks,” he alleges, “that have been levied against the ownership of our facility.”
“I have no idea what he is referring to regarding bullying or racism,” Wallener says, in response to these allegations. “It is also entirely inappropriate for him to allude to discovery documents, all of which were shared ‘without prejudice’ and under the strictest confidentiality,” she continues. “We had excellent expert evidence to back up our claims of nuisance, and they came to us looking to settle, not the other way around. I’d be happy to debate and discuss facts, but he provides none.”
The saga of the motorsport circuit is long and, like the track itself, it takes several turns. The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit opened in June 2016, within the boundaries of the Municipality of North Cowichan, and a short drive from downtown Duncan. Neighbours in the nearby rural residential area of Sahtlam immediately complained that they were being subjected to revving engines and screeching tires from race cars at the facility, and questioned what they considered a lack of public process prior to a racetrack’s approval.
The company objected to the categorization of its facility as a racetrack, on the basis that no competitive races are held. It describes the facility as a motorsports playground that’s “more than just a place to drive fast.” Though it does not advertise its membership fees, an individual membership has been quoted at $48,000 for a 25-year membership, plus $4,800 in annual dues. Members can drive their cars around a 2.3-kilometre circuit designed by world-class racetrack engineers and then relax in a luxury clubhouse. It’s a course “fit to host a Grand Prix,” according to the circuit’s website.
Within a few months of the circuit’s opening, neighbours formed the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association to tackle their grievances. They said they compiled significant evidence that the track may not have been appropriately zoned under the Municipality of North Cowichan’s bylaws. Some North Cowichan councillors later said they had been led to believe that the facility would primarily be used for test-drives and expressed concern about the community’s noise complaints.
The Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association ultimately sued both the track and the municipality, alleging the facility was a nuisance operating illegally according to the area’s zoning bylaws, and challenging the municipality’s enforcement of those bylaws.
In October 2018 a B.C. Supreme Court judge struck some portions of the claim on the basis that the court has no authority to tell the municipality how to interpret its own zoning bylaws. This in effect released the municipality from the lawsuit, leaving the ongoing nuisance complaint as a matter between the circuit and the neighbours.
Dropping the case now might look like returning to square one, but the neighbours’ position has in fact strengthened significantly over the past couple of years, says Isabel Rimmer, president of the Sahtlam Neighbourhood Association, and one of six plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.
For one, they have dramatically improved their relationship with the Municipality of North Cowichan, which has a new mayor and council and several new senior staff, Rimmer says. Some councillors have also now said they won’t consider a proposed expansion of the facility until the current noise issue is dealt with.
North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring posted a hopeful message on Facebook this week in response to news of the settlement: “It’s always heartening to me when disputes can be settled out of court. Much better to settle this as neighbours rather than using the oppositional methods that are inherent in legal actions. This announcement, in my mind, should also serve to clear some of the obstacles off the table when it comes to having frank and fruitful discussions with all sides with respect to the pending application VIMC has for a track expansion.”
And the neighbourhood association has other ideas of things to spend their time and money on as an organization, besides a drawn-out legal fight, Rimmer says.
“In the process of fighting the racetrack, we have created a pretty strong residents’ association and an enhanced sense of community. And we realized that there are a lot of things we want to do in our community that the resources that we’re pouring into a lawsuit preclude.”
“It’s not good business to have neighbours that are continuously unhappy with you and are willing to show it,” Rimmer continues. “I think VIMC has come to understand that — as part of our neighbourhood and part of our community — it’s really important that they respect our way of life, and that they respect the way our neighbourhood was before they moved into our community, and that it reflects very badly on them as a business when there’s constant protest and constant dissatisfaction with the way they’re behaving as neighbours.”
Ultimately, Rimmer says, the neighbours are satisfied with their decision to drop the lawsuit. “Although we were willing to pursue the legal recourse as long as we felt it was the best one, we now believe that there are alternatives that are better for our community, and we will pursue those with gusto and vigour.”
This piece was edited by Robin Perelle. Sign up for our weekly Cowichan Valley newsletter here.