Battle brewing over Balfour ferry terminal

Queens Bay residents are preparing to oppose any plans to relocate the Kootenay Lake ferry’s western terminal to their neighbourhood.

The Balfour ferry landing could be on the move

Queens Bay residents are preparing to oppose any plans to relocate the Kootenay Lake ferry’s western terminal to their neighbourhood, but one prominent East Shore resident says such a move is long overdue.

“This is going to take a concerted community-based campaign to defeat the Ministry of Transportation’s intentions,” said John Betts of the Queens Bay Residents Association. “We were surprised how far along this process has gone internally. It looks like they’ve convinced themselves they need to move the ferry landing.”

An open house is set for next Wednesday at Redfish school from 5 to 8 p.m. to gather input on the possibility, although the preferred location hasn’t been made public yet.

The ministry says a move could shorten the crossing time, address congestion, and improve safety. It’s concerned the narrows at Balfour is becoming increasingly shallow, damaging the hull of the MV Osprey 2000.

The ministry said the hull was inspected in 2013 and light damage was noted, namely some pitting and breakdown of the coating, which was unexpected given the vessel’s age.

“Further investigation determined the shifting sands of the lake bed in the narrow channel were creating extremely low clearance for the vessel and causing sand to be churned up onto the hull,” spokeswoman Trish Rorison wrote in an email to the Star, adding that concerns about water depth were also raised last year by the Canadian Coast Guard.

However, she said these things wouldn’t have been noticed by passengers and didn’t compromise safety or cause service interruptions. The most recent documented instance was in 2008. “The changing lakebed profile is the key challenge we have to address,” Rorison said.

But Betts said Queens Bay stands to suffer if the terminal is moved there.

“In terms of what’s at stake for the community, Queens Bay is a unique and pleasant stretch of beach that’s generally accessible, popular among residents and tourists,” he said. “It has cultural significance for First Nations and it’s an area for blue-tailed skink. For residents, this is our front yard. Is converting to rip rap and parking lot the best use of this beach? This bit of infrastructure will have a huge consequence on the values we think are important.”

He acknowledged there are “genuine concerns” about the present terminal but suggested they can be addressed without moving it. He said congestion is “relatively rare,” maintaining navigable waterways “is not a new science,” and any time saved from the crossing would be “pretty negligible.”

“We want to understand why we cannot manage the outlet through dredging or other engineering feats that don’t involve destroying kilometers of pristine bay,” he said.

Betts also said the move would “take the heart out of Balfour and have a demoralizing effect,” by striking a blow against small businesses who rely on ferry traffic.

He said residents feel disadvantaged heading into next week’s open house because they don’t fully understand the consultation process: who decides and what factors will they way? He worries the more quantifiable aspects will outweigh the intangibles.

Still, he’s hoping for a strong turnout and support from anyone with an interest in Kootenay Lake.

“This stretch is known among many people who have passed through the area. They’re going to shake their heads and say ‘Have the people of the Kootenays lost their minds? You had such a beautiful spot, why did you screw it up?’”

Betts said they’re eager for answers and “looking forward to working constructively with the ministry, once we understand all the issues. We’re quite willing to find a better solution than destroying Queens Bay.”

Balfour business owner ambivalent

The president of the Balfour and District Business and Historic Association, meanwhile, said even if the ferry terminal stays put, significant investment is needed to bring it up to snuff.

“I fully understand they need to spend a lot of money to either repair what’s here or move it,” Randy Zelonka said. “They’re looking at the loading ramp and the paving on the landing needs to be repaired. Dredging might be needed and there are issues with effluent discharge. Business wise, I don’t particularly care for [moving the terminal] but as a taxpayer I think they need to look at all aspects. They’ve got to make sure they’re doing the best thing for the long term.”

Zelonka owns the Gill and Gift, a combination gas station, tackle shop, and souvenir store that is one of a handful of business at the ferry terminal. Although he’s still getting a handle on how his association’s members feel about a potential move, he said some are less concerned because they don’t feel directly affected.

But if the terminal does relocate, he’s worried what would be left behind. Zelonka said the business association sent a letter to the ministry last year telling them “they need to leave us here with something that we can work with. I don’t know how much influence we have, but if the move took place, you can’t leave us with a terrible dock and cracked pavement. Our point was please add something to the budget to address that.”

Zelonka said the reply assured them their views would be considered during the consultation process.

If the terminal moved, he’s not sure if relocating his business to the new landing would be possible, since it’s unclear if retail space is part of the plans. A 2012 consultant’s reported stated “tourist facilities and a retail/concession building … would be desirable but are not deemed essential … The inclusion of these features would depend on the amount of land available and on the relevant business case.”

Zelonka added: “The cost of moving is huge, with putting in new [gas] tanks and everything that goes with it.”

East Shore sees advantages

Gray Creek’s Tom Lymbery is thus far the most vocal proponent of moving the terminal to Queens Bay. The now mostly retired proprietor of the Gray Creek Store said there would be many advantages for East Shore residents.

“I certainly hope it happens,” he said. “Highways is going to save a lot of money because it’s a shorter trip and it will improve traffic flow enormously. An hourly service is completely possible, putting the East Shore 40 minutes closer to any hospital or emergency services. That’s a big difference.”

Between June and September, when both the MV Osprey 2000 and smaller MV Balfour are in service, a ferry departs each terminal every 50 minutes. The rest of the year, when the Osprey alone is in service, the wait between sailings is an hour and 40 minutes. The free crossing itself takes 35 minutes.

Lymbery suggested a speedier, more direct route would mean the Osprey could handle all traffic year-round and the 62-year-old Balfour could become a spare. “A lot of people think the Balfour should be replaced with a larger, faster ferry, but that would be much more expensive than a dock at Queens Bay,” Lymbery said.

He acknowledged “a lot of people will complain” about the move.

“They’ll have to truck in a lot of fill, and Balfour’s going to suffer to some extent, but some businesses might get preferences as to sites on the new landing.”

That wasn’t the case in 1947, when the MV Anscomb was launched to replace the SS Nasookin and the ferry terminals were moved from Fraser’s Landing to Balfour and Gray Creek to Kootenay Bay. Fraser’s Landing was slightly west of the present Balfour terminal, while the eastern terminal used to be just below Lymbery’s family store.

“There was no assistance for businesses left out in the cold,” he says. “It wasn’t so bad for Gray Creek, because we still had the highway going by us. But at Fraser’s Landing, there was no longer any traffic down that road and it became a farm.”

Queens Bay was actually considered for the ferry terminal in 1947, Lymbery said, but the crew lived in Procter, and it was argued the bay was too rocky, making pile driving difficult.

He said the opening of the Kootenay Pass in 1963 “did us in completely,” although construction of Kokanee Springs Golf Resort around the same time helped turn the East Shore into a tourist destination.

Lymbery said most people north of Boswell travel to Nelson rather than Creston for services and therefore use the ferry. “The ferry has always been contentious, but this is the biggest solution we can possibly see.”

Study to be made public

Regional District of Central Kootenay Area E director Ramona Faust, in whose area the ferry terminal falls, said she’s “happy there will be public consultation. Both Balfour and its businesses and the residents of Queens Bay have a tremendous interest in any future plans with livelihoods and lifestyles that could change.”

Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall agreed: “Balfour has grown up around the current ferry landing and there are viable businesses there. It has created sustainable livelihoods. To just pick up and move is not easy.”

Mungall said while she accepts some of the rationales for a potential move, she is skeptical of others and suspects a new site would pose its own challenges. But she encouraged residents to attend the open house.

“Anybody who cares about this, who lives along Kootenay Lake, should get out and voice their concerns,” she said. “Talk to ministry staff. We have good people here who value local voices and communities. We need to make sure it’s heard all the way to Victoria. People who live far away often may only look at the dollars and cents. If they don’t know about people in Balfour, it’s easy to make a decision without perspective.”

A 2012 study looked at four potential locations for a new ferry terminal at Queens Bay, two on the north side and two on the south. While all were considered viable, a site on Crown land half a kilometre south of McEwan Point and adjacent to Highway 31A was identified as the most promising spot.

The ministry described the report as a “high-level concept study.” In 2015, concerns about the channel’s depth prompted the ministry to hire SNC Lavalin to further investigate potential sites and provide recommendations on which sites are technically feasible. The report was delivered in March but its findings won’t be made public until this week.


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