LAC LA BICHE — Trenches have been dug and much of the groundwork to lay water and sewer lines underground has been completed as crews work quickly to finish the Bayview improvement project before the snow begins to fall.
The project to connect the Bayview Beach subdivision to the Lac La Biche Biological Nutrient Removal (BNR) Plant, had been met with strong opposition by 40 residents. For property owners opposed to the project the biggest driver is the costs associated with the project.
Landowners will be on the hook for 51 per cent of the cost of bringing the water and sewage lines to each individual plot’s property line. Lac La Biche County will pick up the remaining 49 per cent of the bill, which is approximately $930,000, said Dan Small, Lac La Biche County’s associate CAO.
Within five years, properties with structures on them with be required to hookup to the public lines at the owner's expense.
Property owners who have functioning water and septic tanks are able to remain offline after the five-year period, only if they have their tanks inspected every year to guarantee the proper functioning of the equipment. The cost of these yearly inspections will also be borne by owners who opt to stay disconnected from the main line.
Wayne McMillan, an unofficial spokesperson for Bayview residents who opposes the improvement project, bought his first plot of land within the subdivision in 1968, and since has acquired an adjacent lot.
What has pushed MacMillan and others to oppose the project simply comes down to finances. “I just can’t afford it... I am already paying $1,400 a year for both lots for taxes. Now I’m going to be paying $3,202 at least. I got to scratch and save just to make sure to have my tax money.”
Beginning next tax season, Bayview residents will see $900.96 added to their property taxes for every plot of land they own within the subdivision, which will continue at that rate for the next 15 years.
MacMillan worries how he will make up the extra cost, along with the cost of tie into the municipal lines.
“Many of us are not in the workforce anymore, we don't have control of our income. We have just old age pensions coming in — It's bad for everybody here.”
According to MacMillan, of the 96 lots – not taking into account recent property amalgamation – 32 plots of land are undeveloped. Roughly nine lots have seasonal campers on the property, 10 lots contain off grid cabins that are used seasonally, 33 cabins are tied into the power grid and roughly 12 properties have year-round occupancy in the subdivision.
An invitation to speak with residents opposed to the local improvement was not accepted by former mayor, Omer Moghrabi, said MacMillan, who was redirected to speak with CAO Small instead.
Coun. George L’Heureux did visit and listen to concerns Bayview residents early this summer. When it came time to vote on issues regarding the Bayview improvement project, L’Heureux with the rest of council voted to proceed with the project as was originally planned.
For the lakes
With the intention to keep sewage and nutrient loading from entering the nearby lakes and watershed, Small’s told Lakeland This Week, “Over the last 15 years or so, every year or two, we hook up a subdivision. Part of that is we bring it to your property line, and you pay a local improvement. The local improvement is, depending on various situations, between $10,000 and $15,000, and you pay that off over 15 years on your taxes.”
He further explained, “At the beginning there were communities who petitioned for it. So, we hook those up first and now we have probably two or three other communities that never petition for it, but we want to continue with this project and hook everybody up along the way.”
Lac La Biche County administrators say the driving factor behind the water and sewer improvements is maintaining the health of the county’s lakes.
Ken Van Buul, the CAO for Lac La Biche County said, “Our council and our community have spent, quite frankly, tens of millions of dollars in dealing with this whole issue to offset of our sewer systems and our septic and our leaching into our lake for 15 plus years, and I think the most dramatic piece of that would be the BNR plant, which opened eight years ago.”
“You have got to start somewhere, and it started in the hamlet of Lac La Biche. But now you're starting to see the rest of the pieces start to fit together so that we can deal with this issue around our phosphorus loading and our leaching into our lake and how we dispose of our sewage. It starts to become a more whole holistic approach and the next step of that is the Plamondon lift station project,” he explained.
But for MacMillan, forcing residents who have been living off the grid for decades utilizing personal septic and water systems or outhouses, is a scapegoat for larger polluters that the County is turning a blind eye too.
“There's a pile of cattle and when you get that many cattle in that watershed, every rain and run-off in the spring feeding down into the bay... you could almost walk across this bay with the weeds. And it's not coming from Bayview people, I can tell you that much.”
MacMillan believes greater attention should be directed to cattle and livestock near the lakes and watershed, as well as a crackdown on illegal raw sewage dumping, which he says has been a problem over the years.
Although the County and other organizations continue to look into where the largest sources of phosphorus loading of the lakes are originating from, Van Buul said, “Whether you're the big culprit or the little culprit, we all have to pitch in our share.”
“As a municipality we have – forget about a legal responsibility – we have a moral responsibility and it's outlined in the Municipal Government Act (MGA) to keep our environment safe,” he said. “In the case of these subdivisions the most responsible manner that we can deal with our septic issues is not through a septic field, is not through a septic tank, it's through getting that sewage back to the BNR plant where it can be treated at the highest level that we can in our community right now.”
All new developments and subdivisions in Lac La Biche County are now required to have water and sewage lines brought to the property lines of all lots. A cost that is included in the developer's construction costs and generally downloaded onto the buyer of the property, said Van Buul.
The straw poll, nothing scientific
Lac La Biche County began reviewing the possibility of providing water and sewage to the subdivision after two Bayview residents approached council in November of 2019.
Since then, municipal administration has been pursuing plans for the local improvement and an initial plan was approved by the Lac La Biche council on July 28, 2020. It was subsequently presented in draft form at open house at the Plamondon community hall on Aug. 29 of last year.
During the open house, an unofficial straw poll was held, which translated to a green light for the County’s administration to continue pursuing the water and waste improvement project.
In a written statement, Melanie McConnell, an associate CAO responsible for the Corporate Services division within Lac La Biche County, told Lakeland This Week that approximately 50 residents attended the open house. During a subsequent interview, Van Buul stated that approximately 60 to 70 people had attended last summer's open house and had been informed of the project.
Flipping through his notes that he has been keeping on the project, MacMillan said, approximately 45 people from the subdivision were present – many of whom belonged to the same residence, he added.
At the open house, County administrators explained how the unofficial straw vote would work: “They said if you had two lots, you could put two hands up. If you had one a lot, you put one hand up. And that's the way the poll went,” explained MacMillan.
Van Buul acknowledged that the straw poll was a loose collection of opinions, but nevertheless propelled the project forward.
“At that time, of those residents who were there and – there was nothing scientific – because I think there was, members of the same family who on the local petition get one vote but at the meeting they probably both put up their hands... But it was a pretty split crowd. There was no clear majority winner one way or the other, which is why council decided to go ahead,” said Van Buul.
Invested in the outcome of the local improvement project, the results of the vote stick out in MacMillan’s memory and his notes. “There was 20 yes votes and 22 no votes and three supposedly undecided votes,” he told Lakeland This Week.
The results from the County’s straw poll, which did not include all Bayview landowners, started the ball rolling on the implementation of the sewer and water project.
“My opinion, if it was done fair, they should have asked for a fair vote,” said MacMillan. “They should have either sent letters to everybody individually, like they send a tax notice.”
Following the open house, Bayview residents received a letter in May notifying them of the project’s approval.
With that notice came a 30-day deadline to officially oppose the project through a petition.
In June, some residents from the subdivision who opposed the project worked to stop the project before it began. Residents against the water and sewer project spent the next 29 days tracking down property owners across the province.
On July 6, more than a dozen Bayview residents spoke during a public input session at a Lac La Biche council meeting against the project. Following the public input session, they learned their petition had been deemed insufficient.
Only seven out of 62 signature blocks petitioners had gathered were officially considered valid based on the regulation outlined by the MGA. Based on the municipal report, two key components led to the failed resident-driven petition. The main issue was the petition lacked an identical purpose statement on each page, eliminating the validity of nine pages of signatures.
As a result, the remaining signatories did not achieve the 50 per cent combined land value threshold necessary to stop the development project, which is required by the MGA.
A combined land value totaling $5,513,540 of signatories was needed in order to halt the project. However, even if the eliminated pages had not been considered invalid, the 43 remaining eligible signatures would have only reached $4,025,910 combined value, according to McConnell.
Non-payment not recommended
When out gathering petitions, MacMillan heard several residents, predominantly from those who are on fixed incomes or who use their plot as a seasonal residence, suggest that they are planning to refuse to pay the additional amount when tax time comes.
This option is not recommended by County administrators.
“There's provisions in Municipal Government Act if you don't pay your taxes or utilities the County could auction your property off,” said Small. “But that has rarely happened because the taxes get paid well before then. And certainly, we don't want to see that happen either.”
Small also described another option, “The province does have a program through Municipal Affairs, where it can accumulate on your property and when you sell it you can have taxes paid back. It's been out there for a few years. I don't think there's been a whole lot of people that have taken advantage of it, but I think it's because our taxes are reasonable, generally, and we haven't had a whole lot of requests for that.”
But MacMillan says these tax deferral options are limited to those who can apply and typically only cover primary residents, not seasonal or secondary properties – let alone multiple lots. As well, he notes that several properties for sale in the subdivision, both with structures and without, have been on the market for an extended length of time.
“Nothing is selling. There's been lots for sale here for three or four years and there is nothing moving, said MacMillan, adding “There's a half a dozen of these lots of have gone up for sale since (the project was announced).”
Although Lakeland This Week was not able to confirm the listing dates of all the properties currently for sale in the subdivision, there are at least 10 lots listed for sale in the Bayview Beach subdivision. There are four properties for sale by owners and six properties listed with real state agencies.
Lakeland This Week can confirm that three lots were listed for sale from mid-April to mid-May. At least two other properties have been on the market for over a year.
Other lots for sale in nearby subdivisions, which included water and sewage lines to the property, are also facing a stagnant sellers' market.
Marie Warawa, a real estate agent with Royal LePage Lakeland, said “There are also a number of lots at Eagle Haunt, they have all been in the market for a very long time — over a year.”
Warawa adds, generally when a subdivision hooks up to the main water and sewer line, it does add value to all the properties in the area — when properties do sell.
This story first appeared in the Lakeland This Week newspaper on Oct. 19, 2021. The online version has been corrected to state that 40 Bayview property owners remain opposed to the local improvement.