BS in Paradise

Response by Eric Booth to “Development has put Gulf Islands in death spiral” by Frants Attorp in the Victoria Times Colonist, August 1, 2020 edition.

(Mr. Attorp’s original comments are in black italics, and Mr. Booth’s comments are in blue.)

One of the world’s natural wonders is being lost to development.

This is an unmitigated lie, commonly known in rural areas as bullshit (BS). And, while that may perhaps at first blanch sound a little harsh, the rest of his article is wrought with more BS. Development on Salt Spring, where Mr. Attorp resides, has seen less than a 1% per annum growth rate for over 10 years…it is hardly being “lost to development.”

 The most recent trouble in paradise comes in the form of a housing crisis which, tragically, is perceived by many as an isolated incident with a simple solution — create more densities.

The “housing crisis” has been going on for over 25 years, with as many studies and reports on the issue in the same time frame. It is certainly not “recent.”

In fact, the Gulf Islands are caught in a complex humans-first syndrome that, unless broken, will result in crisis after crisis and the inexorable urbanization of a rural area protected by law.

The history of the Islands Trust government tasked with protecting the fragile ecosystems is important: In 1972 an all-party special committee of the legislature was established to investigate the unique problems facing the Trust Area. The committee concluded that pressures arising from the area’s proximity to major urban centres were damaging the very features that made the Trust Area so attractive to residents and visitors.

In response to these findings, the provincial government enacted the Islands Trust Act in 1974. While each island has its own story, the general trend throughout the archipelago is from low to higher density.
More BS. The last census showed that, within the Islands Trust Area as a whole, ONE new person was added to the area every 6 months. In other words, while some areas, like Salt Spring are experiencing minimal growth in population, the trend on other islands is actually depopulation.
This progression, which mirrors events around the world, is viewed by many as normal, inevitable, and even desirable. It also flies in the face of the Trust’s “preserve and protect” mandate.

More BS. Each island has developed its own Official Community Plan (OCP), the development of which was done in careful consultation with the islands’ residents. The policies established by the “Islands Trust Council” establish the parameters which OCP’s and local bylaws are required to meet, including strict environmental protections.

Islands Trust documents contain many references to limiting growth, but are sadly lacking in detail. The words “rural” and “unique amenities,” for example, are left open to interpretation. Is “rural” one or five acres? Are shops a “unique amenity”? And why say “we accept there are limits to the ability of our environment to absorb continued development” without defining what those limits are?

Mr. Attorp has no understanding of the ability of our environment to absorb the little growth that is still allowed for under our OCP’s. The Trust has effectively locked the door after developing the OCP’s which provide the guidance for the future development of the community. Anyone knowledgeable of the Provincial Local Government Act Section 473 (see extract below), which Mr. Attorp arguably has no knowledge of, knows that it mandates local governments to review their OCP’s on a regular basis (e.g. every 5+ years) to ensure there the community’s needs with respect to housing, schools, commercial, and industrial properties, etc. are met. Without necessary changes, community can, and will, wither and die.

473   (1) An official community plan must include statements and map designations for the area covered by the plan respecting the following:

(a) the approximate location, amount, type and density of residential development required to meet anticipated housing needs over a period of at least 5 years;

(b) the approximate location, amount and type of present and proposed commercial, industrial, institutional, agricultural, recreational and public utility land uses;

(c) the approximate location and area of sand and gravel deposits that are suitable for future sand and gravel extraction;

(d) restrictions on the use of land that is subject to hazardous conditions or that is environmentally sensitive to development;

(e) the approximate location and phasing of any major road, sewer and water systems;

(f) the approximate location and type of present and proposed public facilities, including schools, parks and waste treatment and disposal sites;

(g) other matters that may, in respect of any plan, be required or authorized by the minister.

(2) An official community plan must include housing policies of the local government respecting affordable housing, rental housing and special needs housing.

The Islands Trust was unquestionably established to put the brakes on development, but in 2003 it shifted its focus from environmental to social goals.

This was reflected in Trust correspondence which, for 30 years, contained the tagline “To Preserve and Protect,” but suddenly and without explanation, changed to “Preserving Island Communities, Culture and Environment”.

The acknowledgement that the Trust Act was meant to address all three legs of a healthy community stool – environmental, social and economic – was the reason for the “change,” which wasn’t a change…it was, as stated, an acknowledgment.

Salt Spring, the largest and most populous of the islands, is the epicentre of the current malaise. There are countless illegal dwellings across the island, many of them unfit for human habitation.

The reason illegal dwellings exist is a direct result of mismanagement and poor planning of the Trust itself. The basic real estate economics of supply and demand were never taken into consideration. When you limit supply (which the Trust Act did), in an area of high demand (which is the entire Trust Area), the result is an increase in property values, which leads to a situation where typical investment rental properties are no longer viable, leading to the steady decline in rental availability with the associated increase in rental cost. We have a less than zero vacancy rate with rents rising virtually by the month as long term rental properties come onto the market and are sold to people moving to the island to escape urban environments.

The Trust has conceded the problem, fuelled by islanders seeking extra income, is widespread and that “most are flying under the radar.” Concurrently, there is a housing shortage that has forced many into substandard premises and turned bylaw enforcement into a nightmare.

The housing shortage Salt Spring is experiencing is similar to what Whistler went through – a shortage of affordable, employee housing as a result of rising real estate values in an area of high demand. The median house price on Salt Spring is now $850,0000 while the average house price is over $1,000,000. And yet, the Local Islands Trust has taken no proactive measures to address the situation. It has now been 12 years since an OCP review.

At a recent public meeting, Trustee Laura Patrick discussed the endless battle of trying to enforce the island’s ban on short- term vacation rentals (STVRs). She indicated that, for every one that is closed, more pop up.

The oft bandied about rental boogeyman – illegal STVR’s – is a proverbial drop in the bucket and has no significant effect on rentals on the island. This is perhaps best quantified in the fact there are currently only 21 bylaw investigation files open on STVR’s on Salt Spring in spite of the fact bylaw enforcement have PROACTIVELY been seeking them out for 2 years.

The rules-be-damned culture runs deep on the islands, but there are consequences: lawlessness makes a mockery of planning and, in the case of STVRs on Salt Spring, reduces the housing stock for full-time residents, thereby forcing elected trustees to consider ever higher densities.

“Reduces” by less than 21, since, if the illegal STVR’s were forced out of business, the vast majority would either not be let for long term rentals, or, would be put onto the open market for sale where they would be bought by new fulltime residents, not rented to low to middle income renters.

The lack of accommodation for local employees is of particular concern as it affects essential services. Since the Trust has no tools to designate new densities for employees only, it uses a housing shotgun to blast target areas in the hope that some of the shot hits home for local workers. Unfortunately, it also blows holes in the 17,000 population cap specified in Salt Spring’s Official Community Plan.

More bullshit. (a) The Local Trust Committee could actively work with not-for-profit societies to rezone land and place upon the land covenants to restrict the property to employee housing, similar to Whistler’s model. (b) There is no quantified 17,000 population cap in the OCP. The only cap on population is relative the number of potential properties which can be created by subdivision times the average number of residents per property, which currently, according to the last census was 2.1, below the provincial average of 2.5.

Meanwhile, housing groups have formed and are putting intense pressure on trustees. A key organizer has written about the need for “many thousands” of new affordable housing units, an incredible number for a protected island that has a population of only 12,000 and where water is so scarce the local water utility has placed a moratorium on new hook-ups.

The only “key organizer” I am aware of who “has written about the need for “many thousands” of new affordable housing units” is ME. Currently the population isn’t 12,000, its only 10,500+, and, water is not scarce. Water consumption data clearly shows there is an abundant supply of water in the majority of areas of the island. The scarcity myth that we are running short is exactly that – a myth. The current moratorium is in spite of the fact there is over 50,000,000 gallons a year available BELOW the conservative limitation placed on the licensed amount (72%) which was recommended to account for future, potential climate change.  

Housing advocates oppose gentrification, but seem less concerned about the environmental impact of changing the demographics of the island.

This statement is incredibly insulting to every housing advocate on the island. I am not aware of one advocate for community housing who is “less concerned about environmental impact” than providing housing for those who need it.

The debate raises the question of whether the Gulf Islands can be a regional go-to spot for people seeking affordable housing, while still meeting the goals of the Islands Trust.

Housing for the service industries on the islands (hospitals, schools, ferries, grocery stores, RCMP, construction trades, etc.) is a critical factor in providing for a healthy community.

The Gulf Islands are in crisis, and it must be remembered that their protection is not just for the benefit of those who live there, but also British Columbia generally.

The province must intervene to help with issues such as enforcement, water shortages and clearcut logging on private land. Above all, those in charge must work co-operatively to create a long-term plan to limit growth.

There is already a “long-term plan to limit growth.” Its called the Islands Trust Act. The long-term plan that is lacking is HOW to provide for a sustainable community….one that has affordable housing for its service industries.

I agree the Province should step in, however, not for the reasons Mr. Attorp outlines. The Trust bureaucracy is out of control, and, the Trustees are, to the peril of the health of the community, ignoring the challenges of crisis.

Failure to do so will see the islands lose their natural splendour and fade into something bland, ordinary and uninspiring.

Without community housing growth, like the kind that Whistler implemented through its Housing Authority, Islands Trust Area communities, including Salt Spring, will continue to wither and die as market forces, created unconsciously by the Islands Trust’s failure to address supply/demand dynamics, continue to erode the affordability of the population which serves.

Frants Attorp is a Salt Spring writer who has worked for several Gulf Islands publications.

Eric Booth is a born and raised Salt Spring Islander who has been an Islands Trustee (2002-2005), realtor, developer, local talk radio host, political activist, Salt Spring Dollar co-creator, Salt Spring Flag co-creator, and outspoken active community member.