Building Boom Divides Gulf Islanders

Development is raising ire between neighbors and at government. Time to overhaul the Islands Trust?

By Charles Campbell 22 Sep 2004 |

Charles Campbell edited the Georgia Straight weekly for 11 years, and helped to establish the venerable alternative newspaper as an influential and respected voice in the Vancouver media. As the Vancouver Sun's entertainment editor, he increased the section's readership by more than 30 percent in two years. Most recently, he served on the Sun's editorial board.

As an editor and writer he's been closely involved in work that has won more than 60 awards. In 2000, he was honoured with a Southam Fellowship by the University of Toronto's Massey College.

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It's raining hard as I walk up the hill from Bowen Island's Snug Cove to Cates Hill Chapel Hall. Cars stream down to the ferry. "It smells like downtown Toronto," says my companion, a reporter for the Pender Islands-based Island Tides newspaper.

At the chapel, the Islands Trust, which governs a wide range of island communities between Vancouver Island and the mainland, is about to hold a town hall meeting. Nineteen delegations, most from Bowen and Salt Spring, are ready to speak. Almost every one will call for a moratorium on development. All are deeply concerned about the pace of change on their islands.

In 1974, the NDP provincial government created the trust to recognize the unique and special nature of island communities, from Saturna north to Denman. Its mandate is to work with provincial, regional and municipal governments to "preserve and protect" the islands as a resource for the residents and the province as a whole.

This special mandate has real legal clout. In 1995, after Galiano islanders fought MacMillan Bloedel's sale of its forest land for unplanned residental development, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that it gives the trust unique rights to downzone that land to limit previously permitted uses.

Building boom on islands

Certainly there is much to celebrate in the effort to protect the islands -- the creation of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, the Islands Trust's own land acquisition fund, new tax breaks for landowners who preserve valued natural assets, and a host of community-based initiatives.

Yet residents on some islands feel overwhelmed by unwelcome change, and they want to stop it.

• On Salt Spring, the Channel Ridge Properties development -- called Highbridge by its proponents and "Channel Rich" by its critics -- will create an "instant" community that will eventually include 577 residences and increase island population of 10,000 by 1,200. Homes will range in price from $500,000 to $1.2 million

• On Mayne Island, residents angered last spring by clearcut logging and a proposal to turn farmland into a golf course are now outraged that a local inn's planned expansion includes 33 condominiums. One person on the three-member Islands Trust committee considering the proposal removed herself due to a conflict of interest. Another, committee chair Wayne Wright, represented North Pender, where he was involved in another development controversy until his sudden resignation from the trust at the end of August.

• On North Pender, more than 600 of the island's 2,200 residents wrote letters opposing a 36-unit high-density subdivision. The development received "second-reading" approval from both Pender trustees, but its future is uncertain following the resignation of Wright. At one point during the height of the controversy, the two trustees declined to listen to representations from the community. The remaining trustee, Em Round, refused to discuss the matter with a reporter. "It is not this chap's habit to respond to solicitations over the telephone," he was quoted as saying.

'A dispute surrounded by water'

Each island has its own story. On Bowen, residents are concerned about the trust's lack of jurisdiction over potential mines on Crown land, and they fear development will restrict access to treasured open spaces used by the community. On Denman, residents are frustrated by the trust's inability to stop the degradation of the Komas Bluffs, where clearing has caused huge landslides next to a salmon-bearing stream. Logging controversies are commonplace.

On the more developed islands, there is little affordable housing for young families, as communities are built out, prices rise, and income property owners increasingly rent only to tourists. Then there's the unfortunate character of developments like South Pender's Poets Cove -- a little Whistler Village where the old-school Bedwell Harbour marina used to be.

It's not only Salt Spring that is described as a dispute surrounded by water.

At the town hall meeting, both the delegations and trustees said the trust lacks the tools to fulfil its mandate. The trust doesn't have jurisdiction over logging on private land or fish farms along community shorelines. The provincial government often requires highways instead of byways, even though the only person that wants a massive road is a transportation ministry bureaucrat.

The trust is also fearful of expensive lawsuits if it acts to limit or prevent a controversial development that's generally in keeping with existing zoning and precedent. And the trust areas' official community plans sometimes provide inadequate guidance on how development should take place.

Only province can block development

Yet a moratorium on development is not possible without the province's approval. And there's little chance of that. Reform of the trust's complex governance structure, which is being increasingly tested on some islands, also requires provincial involvement. Trust Chair David Essig says the province has said it won't consider the issue in its current mandate.

Each of the trust's 13 areas is independently governed, by the two local trustees and a committee chair from another area. It's quite possible for just two stubborn people to make a significant, irrevocable decision that is not consistent with either the trust's mandate or the community's wishes.

When the trust was created, the localized structure was intended to ensure that the many different trust communities were governed in a way that reflected local desires. Those desires vary widely. Bowen is almost suburban; Texada depends heavily on primary industry.

Islands population has doubled

Mostly, this structure has worked well. But skyrocketing land values, real estate speculation and the influx of new residents on many islands (the trust area's population has doubled since the trust was created) have put enormous pressure on the trust system, which has limited resources.

Local trust committees have enormous control over what issues they consider. They appoint their own advisory planning commissions. Although it's not permitted, the two local trustees can easily conduct key discussions in private. They control meeting agendas. They deal with developers who know how to play the game. And they make mistakes that no one catches.

Sometimes -- current controversies on Mayne and Pender are cases in point -- local democracy seems wanting.

On North Pender, the two trust representatives were acclaimed in the last election. Many people are reluctant to run for a thankless job with an enormous workload and a modest annual honorarium of a few thousand dollars.

Rural-urban split, island-style

The communities themselves are sometimes deeply divided.

Most islands were once truly rural in character. The influx of retirees, telecommuters and seasonal residents has fundamentally changed the character of many. Some newcomers talk about preserving rural values and preventing their chosen community from being overwhelmed by tourists. Yet they oppose the rural industries that have been their community's lifeblood. And they demand subsidized ferry service that encourages both suburbanization and resort-based local economies.

Meanwhile, many longtime residents resent regulation, as rural dwellers tend to do. "Quite often, the islanders that want to get rid of us, that see the trust an unnecessarily intrusive," Gambier trustee Kim Benson told the Chapel Hill crowd, "are the islanders that elect us."

Trust administrator Linda Adams added that there are often holes in the system that the trust can't plug. "Sometimes they're holes that the province is drilling in the dyke."

Province ties local hands on logging

New provincial regulations governing forestry on private land across the province certainly showed no favour to the islands' preserve-and-protect mandate. The rules specifically prohibit local governments from passing bylaws that interfere with a wide range of logging activities on private land. When the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve was being created, the province reneged on its commitment to provide $30 million in cash for land acquisition. Instead it offered mainly Crown land and provincial parks it already controlled.

At the end of the Bowen Island meeting, the trust's chair said the trust community's problems are not unique, that similar battles are being played out across the province. Then Essig, a folksinger from Thetis Island with a postgraduate background in statistical economics, mentioned the upcoming provincial election and took aim at the Liberal government: "Let's all work together to try and take back our province."

Change how Trust operates?

In a conversation with The Tyee a few days after the meeting, he was more circumspect, and said he'd apologized to his colleagues for overstepping his authority with that remark. Essig said the province has listened carefully to the trusts concerns, and he doesn't know why they won't consider trust governance reform.

The trust itself has certainly discussed it. But the complex provincial rules governing municipal and regional government stymie many possible solutions. Bigger islands, though, definitely want more trustees. Smaller ones, it seems, can't always come up with more than two. If the number of trustees doubled, the overall council might become unwieldy, Essig says.

For islands struggling with controversial development, the notion that effective solutions are complicated is faint comfort. Still, at the conclusion of the Bowen Island meeting, trustees asked staff to report back on the feasibility of a freeze on new development requiring amendments to official community plans. However, the ultimate authority over what's approved and what's not still resides in the hands of the local trust committees.

Essig points to official community plans, which must be revised every five years, as the most useful tool for those who want to protect their island's character. Those plans can provide a check against a trust committee running amok.

Ferries fares part of equation

Divided communities also need the special kind of leadership that encourages citizens to listen to and respect each other. Islanders need to take a long view of their community's future. They also need to understand its history.

And when trustees consider new developments, they need to remember the maxim from Field of Dreams: build it and they will come. What's more, others will follow. And they'll all take a boat to get there.

"If we really wanted to stop development," Hornby trustee Tony Law told the town hall meeting, "we could get BC Ferries to stop running those money-losing car ferries." It may be the simplest, surest, cheapest way to protect the islands. Yet none of the delegations advocated that solution.

If they did, they might also have to consider their own complicity in the problem.

Tyee contributing editor Charles Campbell has been visiting Saturna Island for all of his 44 years, and he likes the community's crummy ferry service just as it is.

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