Opinion

Try and Stop Developing Crown Land? You're Sunk

FrontCounter BC's hair-tearing approach to locals opposing a private dock on Sunshine Coast.

By Murray Dobbin 7 Dec 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin contributes his State of the Nation column to The Tyee and Rabble every other Monday. His blog is here.

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Defending public interest over private? Get ready for that sinking feeling. Image: Shutterstock.

Despite the continuous erosion of public interest regulation, Canadians can still labour under the illusion that some government agency somewhere will step in when need be. On a grand scale, the e-coli fiasco was an indication of how untrue this is. On a smaller scale as well, people can find there's no one left to turn to when the public interest is threatened.

My neighbours on the Sunshine Coast have discovered this over the past year as they worked to prevent a very large -- 360 feet -- private dock from being built on their very small bay. They have had a frustrating experience, discovering that what's in the store window is actually not on the shelves when it comes to B.C. regulations.

At issue was not even the traditional debate about whether there should be some restraint on what people can do on private property. To build a dock into B.C. coastal waters means constructing on public, Crown-owned land. You do not have to pay for this privilege -- the government has done away with lease fees for private docks. You do not even have to be a Canadian citizen.

Considerable government money was only recently poured into our area to provide a new public harbour facility where pleasure boat owners can moor for a reasonable fee. So it seems reasonable that if individuals insist on going it alone to have their own private docks, at a bare minimum the interests of others and the environment should not be harmed. After all, they are getting to construct large permanent structures on public lands for their exclusive enjoyment, and without coughing up a dime in lease fees.

Stepping up to FrontCounter BC

B.C.'s requirements on private docks actually sound pretty good. Under the inspiring title "Protecting Our Shores and Coastlines," the official policy proclaims that B.C.'s Crown land is for the use and benefit of all British Columbians:

"Crown land is a public asset and the Province has a responsibility to ensure it is managed to maximize and sustain the flow of economic, social and environmental benefits to British Columbians, now and in the future."

According to the policy, new docks are not supposed to impact the environment. They are not supposed to impact community values. They are not supposed to impact public and First Nation interests.

Yada, yada, yada.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations handles applications for development on Crown land through an agency called FrontCounter BC, sort of a one-stop shopping created to grease the wheels of the approval process. FrontCounter refers to applicants for Crown land as its "clients."

If the provincial government calls people "clients" if they want to develop Crown land for their personal benefit, what does that make the rest of us?

What about B.C. citizens who want Crown lands to be preserved as much as possible in their natural state? It is as though this value simply does not compute in the government's actual management of the public's land.

Why add to the 'mess'?

At a meeting this fall with local residents opposed to dock development, ministry officials assured those present that they could all have a dock if they applied for one, kind of missing the point that not everyone in B.C. sees unrestrained development as a good thing. Residents were ready to tear their hair out in frustration, especially since the officials acknowledged that the dock would be "visually offensive" and that dock development along the Sunshine Coast was "a mess."

The government's own policy on private docks makes it a "requirement" for dock applicants to be "sensitive to views" and "impacts on neighbours."

With a petition of most of the residents on the bay opposing the dock development, and the local regional district government's express opposition, surely a 360-foot dock would violate these requirements. As for the environmental impacts, no professional biologist assessed how this large development would affect the seabed. The cursory report that was supposed to assess this impact actually misidentified the bay where the dock would be built.

However, when contacted about the apparent contradiction between his ministry's Crown land policies and how they are implemented, ministry spokesperson Brennan Clarke emailed that "Policies provide direction in the review of any application, but they are not the only factor used in a decision." In the world of FrontCounter BC, a "requirement" apparently is not something that is, well, "required."

Asked how the ministry could find there is a public interest in this particular development, Clarke just reiterated that the government makes decisions based on "social, environmental and economic factors." But there are no social, environmental, or economic benefits from a development on public land that benefits one applicant, unless "social" has been redefined by the provincial government to mean "individual".

As with so many other areas of B.C. government policy, "public interest" appears to have been redefined to mean "private benefit."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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