Nelson City Council decided at its Sept. 8 meeting to lend the Cottonwood Lake Preservation Society $35,000, with the terms still to be negotiated.
This followed an urgent request for a grant, not a loan, brought to council in a motion at the same meeting by Councillor Rik Logtenberg. He said the society’s fundraising goals and its attempts to thwart logging at Cottonwood Lake would fail without this last-minute intervention by council.
The switch from a grant to a loan was suggested and passed as a compromise in the last five minutes of the lengthy and tense discussion, which was mostly about a grant.
Mayor John Dooley, supported by Councillors Keith Page, Cal Renwick, and Janice Morrison, wondered why the society did not come to council with a formal grant request that included budget, timelines, fundraising plans, and more notice, rather than a councillor requesting it without any of those.
“I have seen no budget and no timelines,” Dooley said during the most heated part of the meeting. “[The city] cut back on pay increases, froze our hiring, cut back to the bone, a zero per cent tax increase, and people think they can waltz through this door and ask for $35,000 just for the hell of it.”
After the Regional District of Central Kootenay purchased 21.6 hectares around Cottonwood Lake in the spring of 2019, the society decided to buy a further 49 hectares of the forest on a slope above Cottonwood Lake owned privately by Nelson Land Corporation, which intends to log it.
The group has an agreement with the company that the sale can go ahead if it raises $400,000 by Dec. 31. But then the society will still have to raise another $350,000 for legal fees plus the costs of fundraising, administration, surveying, subdividing, and a stewardship fee for the nature organization that will eventually take ownership of the land.
In the $400,000 deal with the Nelson Land Corporation there are interim deadlines, one of which was Aug. 31, extended to Sept. 15, when they were expected to have raised $180,000. At the time of the council meeting the society had not reached this, hence the last minute plea for $35,000.
But since the meeting, according to the society’s Andrew McBurney, the group has reached the $180,000 goal (not including a contribution from the city).
Whether this will mean the city still lends the money is unclear.
During the debate, Logtenberg repeatedly said issues of the society’s fundraising competence or tactics were irrelevant in the face of a more important issue: if the society did not receive the grant, their fundraising effort would fail, the slope above Cottonwood Lake will be logged, and this is likely to pose a flood threat to Nelson, especially in the context of climate change.
“There is the issue of downstream consequences,” he said, “especially over 30 or 60 or 80-year time horizons. The $35,000 will be nothing compared to a flood.”
He said a number of local experts at a public meeting last year attended by 400 people had warned that logging the Cottonwood slope could create a flood risk.
But Dooley and city manager Kevin Cormack said they had never received any data about flood risk from the society. The RDCK has done flood risk studies for the region, Cormack pointed out, which could have been provided to council if staff had known in advance that Logtenberg intended to make a flood control argument.
Logtenberg persistently pushed back against Dooley’s multiple objections, saying the financial risk to Nelson was zero because the grant would be returned to the city if the sale did not go through and if it does go through, the city will benefit from flood control and from the increasing popularity of the lake as a recreation destination for Nelson citizens.
“All it comes down to is whether Cottonwood Lake is worth saving, yes or no, it is as simple as that,” said Logtenberg.
He said saving Cottonwood Lake is the city’s responsibility, and “we should not be offloading [that] onto volunteers.”
Dooley countered that he would like to hear that from the preservation society, not from Logtenberg.
“You are way outside your parameters here as a city councillor,” Dooley told him. “You are clearly lobbying for this group.”
Logtenberg said he was involved with the society in its startup days but withdrew in the early stages and was not involved now.
Page agreed with Dooley on Logtenberg’s role in the discussion.
“You say you are not associated with it,” Page said, “but we do not have them here speaking. We have you speaking.”
Morrison said the city has already contributed to the Cottonwood Lake Preservation Society because Nelson has a large share of the cost of the 2019 RDCK purchase of a separate parcel of land around the lake (because Nelson is part of the RDCK).
“We have already made a significant contribution to ensuring trees stay standing,” she said.
Morrison also said, referring to 60-to-80-year flood possibilities, that a logged forest could regrow before a flood occurs. Dooley added that “if somebody doesn’t cut some wood on the side of that mountain, it’s going to burn.”
After nearly an hour of a debate mostly between Dooley and Logtenberg, with arguments being repeated but with less and less patience, Page said, “Could we try and get the meeting back to decorum, please?”
Councillor Jesse Woodward, who had been silent for most of the debate, said, “It’s 10 p.m. What’s happening here is not good situation for making a decision. We are at each other here. This is a lot of money, and we have said no to other people. What we are doing here is not good. You can see the divisiveness that is happening here.”
Page suggested lending the money rather than granting it.
“By passing this as a loan,” Councillor Brittny Anderson said, “we at least have the possibility of having all our questions answered. If we don’t, we will not have those questions answered and we might find out later we wish we had.”
But a motion for a grant was already on the table. It failed because a majority, Dooley, Page, Renwick and Morrison, voted against it.
On the motion for a loan, a majority of Logtenberg, Page, Anderson and Woodward voted for it, with Dooley, Renwick and Morrison against.
The terms of the loan are still to be worked out.
A video of the Sept. 8 council meeting can be found at https://nelson.civicweb.net/document/88664?splitscreen=true&media=true.