Public calls out dodgy industrial proposals promoted by Town

DECEMBER 20, 2021 – Thanks to the interest, expertise, knowledge and time commitment of dozens of local residents who have participated thus far in the public discussions of two proposals for the so-called “Innovation Hub,” there is a better chance that good decisions in the best interest of Qualicum Beach will prevail. Without the contributions of these sentinels and stewards of our town’s future, QB residents are sitting ducks for half-baked schemes looking for suckers.

Image – Town of Qualicum Beach.

At their Committee of the Whole meeting on December 9, 2021, Qualicum Beach Town Council discussed two recent proposals to launch industrial operations on parcels of Town-owned land at View and Qualicum Roads. As we reported previously, the Town issued a Request for Proposals in October 2021 seeking ideas for light industrial use of the 18 hectares (40 acres) of Town land at the site of the decommissioned landfill as seen in the diagram: (from 2021-10-27 Council agenda).

Apparently only two proposals were received — conveniently, only one within each of the two blocks of properties. That’s a couple of red flags right off the bat.

Seeing no problem with this anomaly in today’s hot real estate / land use proposal market, Town staff, Mayor Brian Wiese and Councillor Scott Harrison appear full-steam ahead to make both of these “projects” happen asap. Leaving all of those red flags aside for the moment, let’s first have the residents of Qualicum Beach weigh in, as they did during the Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting.

For clarity and reader convenience, each of the two proposals is addressed separately in this article although the COW meeting was not structured in that way.

Qualicum Wood Transformation Corporation

This appears to be the same proposal submitted three years ago by the same proponent for a combined glulam and wood pellet manufacturing facility at a site near the Qualicum Beach Airport, a project that failed to proceed. Apparently, the proponents have not yet been able to find any other location for their project anywhere on Vancouver Island or elsewhere in the intervening years — another red flag. Here is the Qualicum Wood Transformation Corporation “business plan” that the proponents submitted to the Town of Qualicum Beach:

QB resident Jay Smith, after a Google search for “Qualicum Wood Transformation Corp.” turned up nothing, asked some basic questions about the proponents’ financial capabilities: Who are these people? Where is the evidence of adequate capitalization? Even an annual report.

An online search on the proponent, Jean-Michel Perrier, tells us that he is a carpenter who operates a modest shop equipped with planer and joiner equipment required for precision mouldings etc., based in the small village of Planay in the French Alps near the Courcheval ski mecca. He claims annual “turnover” of $1.5 million [currency not specified].

Mr. Smith, a professional writer, was about the fourth person who commented on the numerous grammatical and spelling errors in the proposal. “Work of this magnitude of importance should have been edited; it is quite amateurish.” Whereupon Mayor Wiese interjected to say that he was ”not going to be entertaining any more comments about grammatical errors on this application. It’s uncalled for and quite frankly, it’s rude.”

Ms. Hutchison reminded all that this proposal does not constitute “light industrial” use, that it is most certainly a heavy industrial proposal. She also pointed out that, at the scale proposed, there would be too little wood waste available to make pellet manufacturing viable.

Professional forester Cindy Hutchison, who lives near the site, stated that “the proposal is just not realistic.” She asked two dozen specific, relevant questions about the proposed mill from “Who are the local partners who are able to supply red cedar and spruce? How much supply is needed? Will the fibre need to be old-growth size and quality?” to “What would the environmental liabilities be? What type of effluents would be created? Is there an agreement with the RDN to use View Road for trucks?” Last on her list of questions was “What is [Council’s] plan for community consultation to ensure that this type of manufacturing facility is feasible and appropriate for this rural neighbourhood?”

Ms. Hutchison also pointed out that local small mills relying on the ever-shrinking supply of red cedar are either out-of-business or pivoting to different varieties of wood. She suggested that the Town do a reality check with FraserWood Industries in Squamish, BC to discuss the viability and potential impact of this whole idea. FraserWood fabricated heavy timber and glulam structural components for the Shell gas station recently built in Nanoose Bay by the Snaw-naw-as First Nation. For readers who want to see what a bona fide glulam facility looks like visit FraserWood Industries’ site.

Councillor Harrison shot back in defense of the proposal to claim “I never heard that they were going to use red cedar. I think they were looking at altogether different species.”

To which Ms. Hutchison responded: “On page 10 of 14 on the application [“Business Plan”], under 5.2 Manufacturing process and key outputs, it says ‘Main wood that will be used will be Red Cedar and Spruce – sourcing will be done with local partners.’”

Disgraced, but shameless and undaunted, Harrison plowed on claiming that this proposal has been thoroughly vetted by provincial government experts with the Provincial Nominee Program (BC PNP) for potential immigrant entrepreneurs, and that PNP staff have performed rigorous due diligence confirming a viable business case.

Resident Lorrie Mohl proceeded to fact-check Harrison’s claim and later in the meeting discredited Harrison even further by pointing out that PNP documents state that “the BC PNP does not pre-approve or endorse business proposals.”

WATCH video here of the K3 Hundegger machine in action.

Obviously perplexed that this proposal was still breathing, Ms. Hutchison later weighed in yet again to “clarify some misunderstandings.” She patiently explained Glulam 101 — you cut down a tree, you then rough saw it into dimensional lumber, you then kiln dry this green lumber, then mill it, glue it, shape it, then add finishing touches. She had checked out the “K3 Hundegger” machine that carpenter Perrier states he purchased “to start manufacture glulam [sic]” in France. According to forester Ms. Hutchison, this machine “is not for sawing lumber. It is for finishing [already existing] glulam to make it into building parts,” i.e. it does not glue; it does not lam.

Councillor Harrison claimed that “The proponents have a very similar facility that they operate in France already. So this would basically be their second similar facility.”

For contrast with an actual glulam facility, we have included an aerial photo of a portion of the FraserWood Industries campus in Squamish.

FraserWood Industries, Squamish, BC.

Business case deemed utterly unrealistic

Bruce Fleming-Smith, a Qualicum Beach resident and architect with a long-time interest in building materials, also dissected the proponent’s “business case,” describing it as “utterly insufficient and unrealistic.” He explained that the glulam industry has already reached maturity, having “been in global use since the end of the second world war. … Nowadays, glulam is being manufactured in large scale facilities that have the presses and all the technology to actually compile these products in unusual form and with extreme precision.”

Fleming-Smith noted the absence of glulam and CLT (cross-laminated timber) producers on Vancouver Island, and for good reason, as there is no ecosystem or infrastructure to support such an endeavour — ranging from raw material to transportation of the finished product.

This begs the question. Why would ex-CEO Daniel Sailland, Planning Director Luke Sales or anyone else representing the Town not have explained all this to Monsieur Perrier and Madame Chaboud three years ago? It would have saved them a lot of hassle, not to mention the time and expense of Town staff’s efforts rehashing the same old proposal.

Perhaps these proponents are no longer even interested. Neither they nor a bilingual proponent bothered to Zoom in to the Committee of the Whole meeting. Can’t blame the time zones; the meeting started at 6 pm France-time. Might this just be some form of straw man?

How does a wood manufacturing facility fit with the Town’s ambience?

QB resident Lois Eaton, the first member of the public invited to speak, expressed concern about potential noise and odours emanating from a mill in Qualicum Beach.

Craig Gooding, Vancouver Island Pacific Homes builder and resident who lives near this Town-owned land, warned of the piercing, screeching noises from wood sawing and milling machines that he regularly experiences in his frequent visits to local manufacturers. To him the proposal is “sick and disturbing.” He warned that supporting such a proposal in the heart of a residential area could be political suicide for Council candidates come October 2022. As Gooding asked Councillor Harrison, “Would you want this [operation] next door to you?”

Resident Lorrie Mohl proceeded to fact-check Harrison’s claim and later in the meeting discredited Harrison even further by pointing out that PNP documents state that “the BC PNP does not pre-approve or endorse business proposals.”

Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce executive director Kim Burden (who is not a QB resident) voiced support for the project suggesting that QB’s economic future must be built on our economic past — farming and forestry — claiming that raw logs from Vancouver Island are being exported because no one wants them. Burden’s implication that the current supply of timber exceeds demand from wood manufacturers was later debunked by industry expert Hutchison who explained that the large logging companies, in the absence of provincial directives to support secondary manufacturing, can get more money by exporting the logs to offshore mills, thus leaving substantial existing wood manufacturing capacity on the Island under-used.

After 45 minutes of discussion, Ms. Hutchison reminded all that this proposal does not constitute “light industrial” use, that it is most certainly a heavy industrial proposal. She also pointed out that, at the scale proposed, there would be too little wood waste available to make pellet manufacturing viable.

At that point, Councillor Westbroek came to everyone’s rescue, asking to change the channel “I would like to ask Cindy and some other neighbours who live there what they think about the Funky Banana proposal because we’re talking about both in the same area.”

Funky Banana Farm

Promoters Mike Butler and Alana Barager attended the COW meeting, representing, “a vertical and farm tourism company,” whatever that means. Based on their scant written submission to the Town, it is not clear where the company is registered, or who its owners, backers and investors might be. Their proposal is to lease-to-own seven (7) acres of Town-owned property in the Agricultural Land Reserve on the north side of the old dump / sandpit.

The sum total of the “business model” presented to us by Butler and Baraga was “point of sale, online and commercial sales getting 2% of the Market.” What exactly this “Market” is they do not specify, but the target North America Market is “579M.”

A business model has to communicate how you plan to make a profit. Butler and Baraga have not done that. The Funky Banana Farm company says it “will plant an outdoor Orchid [we think they mean Orchard] and build 6,000 sq feet of indoor growing space on the property.” Apparently they already have 4,000 trees ready to transfer to the site. And, they have “consulted on loans available” (a cleverly worded statement that could mean anything — including that they have been flatly rejected).

The promoters are strong on imagery (as in, playing to the readers’ imagination), but not spelling. For example, the “backard” [sic] of this video title.

The Funky Banana Farm proposal is also strong on unsubstantiated association. For example, a photo they included with their submission appears to have been taken inside the Muttart Conservatory, a botanical garden built in 1976 in Edmonton, Alberta where, until recently, Butler and Barager lived, working as “Principles [sic] at the Optimus Group.” There is no indication that Butler or the Optimus Group had anything to do with the creation of the Muttart or its recent renovations. Or consider, “our long term model for the site will include an outdoor spa model similar to Scandia spa,” whatever or wherever that is, they don’t explain.

Do the proponents have any experience in ventures such as they propose? “We have started a pilot project in Fort Saskatchewan… to prove the indoor vertical farming model.” They provide no evidence of just how far along this project has gone, or not. Maybe it’s still just a concept. What exactly does starting a pilot project mean? A couple of sketches on a cocktail napkin last night could be the start of a pilot project.

The Funky Banana Farm company’s website proclaims that “Vertical Farming Is The Future,” but as Councillor Westbroek mentioned at the COW meeting, clicking on the website’s Find Out More button led to… nothing.

Confirming Councillor Westbroek’s discovery, clicking on the Find Out More button on Funky Banana Farm company’s website led to… nothing.

Let’s add up the pieces here. Assuming all uses would be authorized by the Agricultural Land Commission we’ve got: an outdoor tree nursery, indoor plant nursery, orchard, winery, spa pools and deck, sauna, café. Also, don’t miss that “the main building will be used for plant propagation and sales and a second story [sic] built for residential purpose.” [emphasis added]

Paying attention to the final line, “all timeline plans are subject to change and could be implemented sooner or later than expected,” are the plans or the timeline “subject to change” or both? Can’t tell from the loosey-goosey language in this proposal.

Nearby resident Lorrie Mohl asked about water required at the property, if they would be linked to the Town water supply and, if so, via what route. Mayor Wiese suggested they would be attached to the Town’s planned water loop along Rupert Road, but he was scarce with details.

Promoter Mike Butler said they didn’t need any Town water to get started, musing that “we’re looking at turning part of the land into a natural water [rain] catchment pond … to water our plants” and maybe a giant dehumidifier to “pull water out of the air” for potable drinking water.

Another nearby resident, Deb McKinley, asked for estimated costs for both water and sewage connections to the property. Town staff did not provide even rough estimates, nor was it apparent that the Town had even discussed these potential leasehold improvement costs with the project promoters. Councillor Harrison admitted they didn’t know what it would cost to extend water and sewer service to the property.

Promoter Mike Butler said they didn’t need any Town water to get started, musing that “we’re looking at turning part of the land into a natural water [rain] catchment pond … to water our plants” and maybe a giant dehumidifier to “pull water out of the air” for potable drinking water.

Lorrie Mohl posed an important question to the project promoters: “Are you still keen if the proposed wood factory is your neighbour?” Mayor Wiese interjected, saying “I’m not sure we should be asking Mike and Alana [the Banana Farm promoters] that question.” He gave no reason why not, and the promoters chose not to answer the question.

Fleming-Smith suggested that the glulam factory would not be a compatible neighbour for the agrarian  character of the Funky Banana Farm. He also commented on the “wildly optimistic” timeline submitted by the promoters.

Related to timelines, Fleming-Smith posed these questions: “To what degree is a tight timeline going to actually move either of these proposals along? Is it wise to even accede to an applicant who says they have a particularly tight timeline?”

The COW meeting ended with Councillor Harrison still trying to argue that the PNP scrutiny was sufficient due diligence to greenlight the Perrier / Chaboud proposal, and that we need to rush the rezoning to comply with a timeline, supposedly imposed by PNP, that the proposed mill be operational within 18 months. Harrison also raised the bogeyman of potential Town liability for any delay.

Readers may be discouraged by this apparent gong show, especially when they take a close look, with a critical eye, at each of the two proposals. It’s rather obvious that somebody is getting played here. Too much pretense; too little transparency. But there is a silver lining. The meeting demonstrated both the necessity and the value of early, informed broad public participation in evaluating the appropriateness and viability of any proposed use or disposition of Town-owned lands.