Crescent Spur mill
The birch mill at its current location in Crescent Spur.

The re-location of a mill from one part of Crescent Spur to another has pitted some local eco-tourism operators with residents who wish to accommodate the family-run mill operation in a rural residential area.

Proponents of the new site say the mill Crescent Spur Hardwoods Ltd. is a much-needed employer that keeps at least one family in the community. The current mill site can no longer be leased as the landowner wishes to use it himself. The proposed site is about five km to the west of the old one. Opponents have raised concerns over the noise and pollution caused by the mill which would now be in closer proximity to their eco-tourism operations, in which they have invested tens of thousands of dollars over many years.

“We’re not asking for the mill to get out of the valley or for Carrier to stop logging,” says Laurella Gabert, owner of Outdoor Life Adventures. “We’re just asking that our own properties remain undisturbed so we can build something here.”

Gabert’s eco-tourism operation offers snowshoeing, wildlife viewing, interpretive hikes, boat tours, star-gazing and camping next to the Fraser River on her property which is as close as 1km from the proposed mill site.

Gabert and four other business owners are fighting the zoning change that is pending final reading by the Regional District Board. The change will allow the mill to locate onto a piece of rural residential property part of the agricultural land reserve in the middle of Crescent Spur, a short distance from the river. The operators will live on one end of the mill property.

After vocal criticism at a public hearing and through letters, landowner Steve Pelton, and mill operators Jennifer Pelton and Michael Gardner (Pelton’s daughter and son-in-law) pledged to box-in the generator used to fuel the plant with plywood in order to muffle the sound. They have also pledged not burn waste wood on the property or operate the mill during summer months, since the birch can only be harvested during cool seasons. Their season last year ended June 10th and booted up again Oct. 4th. They operate from 6:30am to 4:30pm and employ five people in the mill and three off-site. They consume 2500 m3 of birch sawlogs a year – 100 loads sourced from all over the Robson Valley.

The best part of the birch logs are used in high-end flooring in Japan. A large portion of the log is discarded and waste wood and logs are sold or donated to local people who wish to burn them or use them as animal bedding, according to the mill operators.

Crescent Spur resident of 50 years Melva Ames says she can’t see anything negative about the new location. It allows five children to remain in the community, she says, and the waste wood can be used by local people.

“It keeps the school bus coming to our area,” she says.

Noise from the new location is one of the biggest stated complaints among those who opposed the zoning change. Some homes are within one kilometre of the proposed site, says Gabert, which is also noted in a report to the regional district board.

The regional district planning committee had advised the board not to approve the zoning amendment as it is not part of the Robson Valley Official Community Plan.

Planning committee staff member Terry McEachen says the regional district cannot negotiate a zoning amendment and place restrictions on the land – only the property owner can. McEachen says Pelton has elected to place a covenant on the property himself to limit the months when it can be in operation. As far as noise issues go, there is no covenant at the moment but the property owner can place one at any time without a public hearing.

The board, which is made up of 14 elected representatives for 11 regions approved the third reading of the application last week. Only three directors voted against the motion: Lara Beckett, Andru McCracken and Murry Krause. The next vote will decide whether the application gets final approval.

“I believe the Peltons have gone to the wall to try to address the concerns,” director Ken Starchuck said at the regional district meeting last week before he voted in favour.

In an interview, Starchuck added that they have not received noise complaints at the mill’s current location which also adjoins private property.

“You have to look outside the board report,” Starchuck said. “You have to look at the fact they’re a family-run operation, a value-added operation with five kids attending the school.”

“They’ve made some substantial concessions to alleviate those concerns.”

During the regional district board meeting last week, Area G director for Crooked River-Parsnip Terry Burgess called the concerns of area ecotourism operators, “a bunch of hooey.”

“I can’t believe this board would even consider … rejecting this,” Burgess said. “There is just a bunch of bush bunnies out in the bush. God forbid we do something to bother some environmentalists.”

Gabert says the fact Burgess called the residents “bush bunnies” indicates his and others’ ignorance about what they are really doing.

“This isn’t a hobby,” Gabert says. “This isn’t a bunch of conservationists asking for no industry so we can preserve the state of this valley. This is a real business we are trying to develop. We have investors who are serious about moving us ahead.”

She says there is a misunderstanding that eco-tourism means greenpeace.

“It’s a valid business opportunity that requires undisturbed areas to function,” she says, adding that her business gets close to 100 people a year, for summer and winter tours.

“It changes the whole environment – noise is huge,” Gabert says. “People pay money to get away from it and they pay for the experience of being in a pristine setting. That may be something we won’t be able to offer.”

Some residents have fought ongoing battles to keep industry out of Crescent Spur. Some years ago, a dynamite plant was proposed for the area, but was finally rejected. Proposed Independent Power Projects and big logging activities have also threatened to make inroads on their secluded, relatively quiet existence.

Members of the public raised concerns that if the application is successful, the introduction of a new industrial area could bring more industrial activities into the area. Regional District staff confirmed that the proposed zoning would allow for other wood manufacturing uses, but specifically prohibits Bulk Fuel Storage and Utility Complex on the 0.4 hectare portion of the subject parcel. Any additional uses would also need approval from the Agricultural Land Commission.

In a letter opposing the project resident Wayne Giles said the simple availability of reasonably priced land within our community should not guide land use planning when locating heavy industrial zoning.

“Industrial activity that creates noise and other disturbances will threaten our business ventures, our investments and our future,” wrote five local businesses Andrew P. Mamo Professional Corporation, Meridian Holdings Inc., Crescent Moon Wildlife Refuge, SEEME Consultants, Outdoor Life Adventure Tours in a letter to the regional district.

The letter says their businesses represent employment for 6 people from 5 households and that they operate close to the proposed site.

At the regional district meeting, Valemount Mayor Andru McCracken said the district needs to support tourism as a way to diversify the economy of the region.

“People are trying to make ecotourism work,” McCracken said. “They moved into a rural residential area and made a substantial investment.”

Gabert says they will wait and see what the consequences will be when the mill starts up next to them next fall.

Warren McLennan, who lived for years in Crescent Spur and knows the family running the mill, says Pelton has already been given a chance to expand his operation but turned it down because it would contravene his promise to area residents.

“He’s a man of his word,” McLennan says, who says he has no concerns about the proposed mill site.

Pelton has said they have hopes for a veneer plant to supply a company in Lumby, but there is no contract in place for that yet.

The company could not be reached by presstime.