British Columbia

City of Port Alberni serves Western Forest Products with expropriation notice for 43 acres of waterfront land

The land is currently home to a sawmill that has not been used since 2017 and the city's mayor says it can think of much better uses for it.

The Somass Division Sawmill, which currently occupies the land, has been inactive for years

The land in question is along the waterfront of the city's waterfront and is currently owned by Western Forest Products, which once operated the Somass Division Sawmill there until operations were curtailed in the summer of 2017. (Twitter/@PAPortAuthority)

The machines at Somass Division Sawmill on Port Alberni's waterfront have been quiet for years.

Now, city council is making noise about wanting control of the prime piece of waterfront real estate the idle mill still occupies.

On Tuesday, the City of Port Alberni served formal notice of expropriation to Western Forest Products Inc. (WFP) for the 43 acres of land. The company, which owns the cedar mill, curtailed operations there in July 2017 due to industry pressures.

The expropriation notice was filed within the authority provided to local governments under Section 31 of the province's Community Charter and, according to council, was a decision that was not made lightly.

"Nobody wants to expropriate a property. It doesn't feel right," said Mayor Sharie Minions, "It's just not acceptable from our standpoint for that site to sit vacant for almost half a decade."

The Somass Sawmill in Port Alberni once employed more than a thousand people. It has been shut down since 2017. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Minions, speaking Wednesday morning to Gregor Craigie, the host of CBC's On The Island, said the property is in the heart of the community. Not only could it host a mix of light industry, commercial and residential development, it would open up public access to the waterfront.

Feedback within the last 24 hours from the local community, said Minion, has been overwhelmingly positive.

"There's a collective feeling in our community that the lack of use of this property is absolutely holding us back," she said, adding a master planning process would happen before any concrete changes are made.

In a statement sent to CBC Tuesday, WFP said it has reached out to the city to understand why it has taken this step.

"Western has a long track record of working co-operatively with our municipal partners to identify ways we could help achieve their strategic plans," said the statement.

"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."

The lands, locally described as the Somass Mill site and parking lot, are comprised of roughly 40 acres of waterfront industrial land, with operations at the site having been curtailed since February of 2017. (City of Port Alberni)

Minions said she did have a productive conversation Tuesday with WFP CEO Donald Demens and it is still possible the two parties could come to a negotiated agreement, but that council is not going to put up with letting the land sit idle any longer.

In a statement, city council said it will follow the expropriation process unless future discussions with WFP lead to a satisfactory arrangement whereby the lands are put into meaningful use in the operation of sawmill facilities or are redeveloped by Western Forest Products or another party.

Minions said if this does not happen, WFP will get market value for the land from the city and has an opportunity to appeal if it is not satisfied with the sum.

 "This is not a situation where we're coming in snatching the property and walking away with it," said the mayor. 

According to WFP's 2020 Annual Report, the company has incurred $1.6 million in non-operating costs due to the indefinite curtailment of the Company's Somass sawmill in 2017. 

The report shows WFP had $852.2 million in assets last year.

Gregor Craigie spoke with Port Alberni mayor Sharie Minions about why her city is taking the extreme measure of serving notice to expropriate a former sawmill that has been sitting idle on the city's downtown waterfront for years. 10:50

With files from On The Island

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