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A 400,000-square-foot shopping centre to be built on the edge of the Salmon River is in limbo after the province said it will bring in an independent expert to determine how often the land floods.

A group opposed to the project had earlier commissioned a report that found evidence that the river floods every two to three years, contradicting the original environmental assessment, which showed the river does not top its banks in a typical five-year period. If the land floods more than once every five years, the province is unlikely to allow development because small fish might use the flooded area.

The move surprised the City of Salmon Arm and the developer, SmartCentres, because the Ministry of the Environment had accepted the original environmental assessment in September. The new study should be completed by winter's end, according to the Environment Ministry.

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Residents who are concerned about the impact of big box stores on the city's downtown are celebrating the move.

"At this point, we have a 100-per-cent solid case that the river overtops its banks and does so regularly," said Alex Inselberg, a soil scientist and a member of the group that paid for the second report.

Salmon Arm teacher and development opponent Vivian Morrison was not surprised by the news. "Everyone who lives here knows [that]the river floods," she said.

But Ms. Morrison is not just worried about the salmon.

She and other opponents are also concerned that small businesses would not be able to compete with shops such as Home Depot and Future Shop. "The world is moving away from big box," said Mrs. Morrison. "I don't want Salmon Arm to become 7-Eleven land."

The new mall would offer more square footage of retail space than all of the city's three small shopping centres combined.

The planned development has always been controversial. After a five-day marathon of public hearings in October, 2008, the original proposal was rejected by one vote. The city even considered a plebiscite to gauge public support.

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It is widely believed enough councillors now favour the shopping centre that the necessary zoning and community plan changes would pass a vote.

The city's development office plans to move forward with the first two readings of the bylaw changes in January. The final readings cannot take place until the province is reassured that fish habitat will not be threatened.

According to Mr. Inselberg, the fine layer of silt on Cottonwood trees on the banks of the river should be indisputable evidence of recent floods. The group that wrote the independent report also observed piles of washed-up sticks and a lack of lichen growth at the base of the Cottonwoods, both of which are also signs of frequent flooding. The report also includes an agricultural assessment from 1963 that classifies one of the properties in question as too wet to farm, which was cited by the city as a reason for removing it from the Agricultural Land Reserve in 2005.

SmartCentres spokesperson Nathan Hildebrand said that the company is still moving ahead with its application and hopes to get final approval by April. If successful, building will begin in late spring or early summer.

Mr. Hildebrand would not speculate on the project's chances. Mr. Inselberg said he believes the third study will confirm the flooding threat, and that he would be "surprised" to see the shopping centre built at all.

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