White Rock Museum & Archives photo 1984 White Rock Canadian Open Sandcastle Competition.

White Rock sandcastle competition on the rocks

Backers of the proposal – the White Rock Events Society – plan to call it quits

The White Rock Events Society says that – barring a last-minute reprieve – its proposal for a 2019 revival of the White Rock sandcastle competition is dead in the water.

Tracey LaMarre and Deanna Pedersen, president and treasurer of the society – which successfully resurrected the White Rock Sea Festival in 2013 and ran it for four years before turning it over to the city this year – say they have been unable to get past the sticking point of perceptions that the proposed sandcastle event would cause environmental damage.

And they charge that the competition – which they planned as a much smaller, one-day event, in contrast with the event that drew hundreds of thousands of visitors to the beach in the 1980s – has been the victim of what they feel is behind-the-scenes politicking and discussions in which they were not invited to participate.

“We had a meeting of our board and we decided that we’re done,” LaMarre told Peace Arch News. “We’ve done everything that we were asked to do, but we feel like decisions have been made without any chance to discuss the issues.”

But city recreation and culture director Eric Stepura said he believes the problem is that the society is “fixated on the same style of event that took place in the past, which is unfortunate for them.”

He said that since environmental rules have changed in intervening years, he would favour a sandcastle contest that would truck in sand to a waterfront location off the beach.

Last nail in the coffin for the society’s proposed event, Lamarre and Pedersen believe, was a Nov. 20 letter from the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development that makes it clear that the Semiahmoo First Nation must be consulted about anything considered for the Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area.

“Without support from the Semiahmoo First Nation, the Province is unlikely to authorize this application,” Josh Malt, section head of terrestrial wildlife, writes, noting that SFN has told the ministry they are “not supportive of this proposal, particularly given their interest in pursuing shellfish harvest in this area.”

But LaMarre and Pedersen said the society has been trying to engage with the SFN since April – including requests to set up a meeting with Chief Harley Chappell – without result.

“We could have discussed this seven months ago, given a specific reason why they would or would not support a family event on the beach, and possibly come to some agreement,” the society responded to Malt.

Pedersen said Chappell had suggested holding a meeting in October, but nothing came of it. SFN representatives did not respond to requests for comment by PAN press time Tuesday.

LaMarre and Pedersen say the society takes issue with other environmental objections raised by the ministry, including concerns that the “invertebrate and microbial community” could be harmed by exposure to “potentially toxic glue and paints from the sandcastles.”

“We’ve never said anything about using toxic glue or paints,” Pedersen said, noting that Parksville, which hosts the 39-day Canadian Open Sandcastle Competition on Vancouver Island, permits glue and paints on off-beach sand sculptures “because they want the creations of the professional artists to last longer than one day.”

“We’ve only ever talked about a one-day event taking place between the tides.”

LaMarre said the White Rock event – which the society initially discussed four years ago and spent more than a year researching, including visits to sandcastle events in California and Oregon – seemed to go sideways from the time the society presented the idea to city council last June.

Although council members expressed support in principle, several expressed concerns that securing SFN approval would be, in the words of Coun. David Chesney, “a stumbling block.”

Then-mayor Wayne Baldwin warned the society that the province has placed more stringent limitations on use of the foreshore than existed in the 1980s.

LaMarre said the reaction was unexpected.

“We’d had so much positive feedback from the community and councillors, and White Rock RCMP had told us ‘not to worry about policing,’ we’d assumed the event would be going forward,” she said. “The meeting was a huge blindside for us.”

LaMarre and Pedersen said they were disturbed to hear at the meeting that Stepura had already spoken with the SFN about the event during negotiations to blend the 2018 Sea Festival with SFN’s Semiahmoo Days.

“(SFN councillor Joanne Charles) felt the SFN would strongly oppose a sandcastle competition on the waterfront,” Stepura told council.

Stepura told PAN that he feels council put the issue squarely “in (the society’s) court.”

“Council gave them marching orders to get in touch with SFN, as well as (environmental group) Friends of Semiahmoo Bay, whether or not they would support the (proposal),” Stepura said Monday, noting he is aware of responses subsequently received from both.

“What the haven’t received is an in-person, face-to-face meeting,” he said. “My sense is they’re only interested in one model for the event, and they’ve run into a number of nay-sayers from a number of different groups.”

Stepura noted the event “has not come to council yet” in a staff report, but it is among others he will present in a corporate report in the new year.

“I’d love to have a sandcastle festival in White Rock,” he said. “From what we’ve heard from the province, and SFN and the Friends of the Semiahmoo Bay, if they did an event such as the one in Parksville, there would be no environmental issues. What it comes down to is that the (society) doesn’t like the Parksville model.”

LaMarre and Pedersen said the society questions the logic of the ministry’s objections about “human trampling of invertebrates and disturbance of wildlife and habitats by large crowds,” since none of these had been previously raised during planning for the sea festival.

“The City of White Rock is a seaside resort and a public beach that attracts thousands of visitors, spring, summer and fall…,” Pedersen noted in the society’s response to Malt’s letter.

She said the board wonders whether the ministry intends to deny access to the beach in the future, and whether this has been discussed with businesses and residents.

“We presume the White Rock Sea Festival, which attracts over 100,000 visitors to the beach, and Canada Day by the Bay, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors to the beach, will no longer be allowed,” she writes.

Pedersen told PAN the concerns raised about the sandcastle proposal indicate changes in official attitudes that may ultimately impact many other waterfront events intended to support White Rock businesses and promote the city as a tourist destination.

“It’s not just about this,” Pedersen said. “This is so much bigger than a sandcastle event – it’s opening the door to a lot of things. I think that taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on.”

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