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Mr. SmartCentres, Mitch Goldhar, gives Canadians what they want Add to ...

On May 21, 2010, SmartCentres unveiled a scaled-back plan for its Salmon Arm shopping mall, with less parking and less retail space; the total developed area would be just 21 acres, a substantially smaller footprint than the original 38-acre layout. The proposal included some pot-sweeteners—a walking trail, on-site stormwater treatment, landscaping and a payment to the city for unspecified projects—in exchange for future rezoning flexibility. Most SmartCentres malls are large rectangles, but the Salmon Arm plot looks more like a trapezoid with a ragged diagonal; curiously, the parking lot will be built around the bed of a little tributary of the Salmon River. The company also sought to turn the tide of public opinion by hosting events with giveaways, setting up pro-mall websites and leaning on the local chamber of commerce to back its proposal.

While Bootsma thought the revised plans represented a workable compromise, WA:TER and other Salmon Arm residents, as well as members of the Neskonlith band, weren’t satisfied. Months before SmartCentres released its new plan, residents had seen construction crews dumping landfill on the low-lying property—“illegally,” as the Neskonlith later alleged in an application for a judicial review that is before the courts.

The fill deposits pointed to yet another unresolved environmental riddle: the impact of Salmon River flooding on the SmartCentre property and adjacent lands. The landfill, according to experts hired by the Neskonlith, will elevate the mall lands beyond the reach of the river, meaning that surging water from the winter melt or a heavy rain will inevitably flow elsewhere on its way to Shuswap Lake, although no one seems to know exactly where. (SmartCentres’ Hildebrand says no further landfill will be moved onto the property during the construction.)

At one public meeting, a local engineer named Calvin VanBuskirk questioned how the city could approve a project without understanding what happens when the river floods. “The city has no plan for managing the flood hazard and the risk associated with the Salmon River,” he says. “The whole [approvals] process seems backwards.” VanBuskirk knows something about this subject, as he helps forestry and mining companies design remote access roads and stream crossings that can withstand floods and unstable slopes. The resource companies, he adds, “are held to a much higher [regulatory] standard, and they seem to accept it.”

Both WA:TER and the Neskonlith hired experts to look at the flooding issue. University of British Columbia professor emeritus Michael Church, a geoscientist and flood-hazard specialist, informed the Neskonlith that SmartCentres’ engineers, Stantec Consulting, hadn’t properly assessed the risk because they used “obsolete” 20-year-old flood data. “There is substantial evidence that the hazard has increased since that time,” Church wrote. (In reports to the city, Stantec defended its analysis.)

The Neskonlith and another, smaller local native band suspected the excess water would inundate their land. “If the water can’t go that way, it’s going to come this way,” shrugs Bonnie Thomas.

Thomas is carrying on the work of her late mother, Dr. Mary Thomas, a residential school survivor who spent years trying to restore both local First Nations cultural practices and the ecosystem of the Salmon River, which was a more accurate name for the tributary before development and agricultural practices silted over spawning beds and lowered water levels. “The river itself seems to have been suffering for years,” Thomas adds. “All of those things don’t seem to be of any importance to the developer or the City of Salmon Arm. We were told, ‘We bought the property and we’re going to develop it.’”

Despite the concerns about flooding, Salmon Arm council approved the scaled-back SmartCentre plan and issued development permits in July. Construction is expected to begin this fall, in time for the civic election on Nov. 19. Bootsma isn’t running again—but Bell and three other mall opponents are vying for council seats. After the July vote, the Neskonlith filed its application for a judicial review with the B.C. Supreme Court, alleging that the city had failed to live up to its constitutional obligations to consult the band council. Merely inviting the band to make a deputation at public meetings didn’t cut it, stresses Chief Judy Wilson. “I don’t believe they were taking our questions seriously.”

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