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The Islands Trust Experiment

    News & Events, People & Places    October 23, 2014

“The Islands” of the title are between Vancouver and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. There are 465 in this archipelago, known collectively as the Gulf Islands. I live on Salt Spring Island, shown in green, the largest of the 13, which have a total of 25,000 permanent residents.

Islands Trust is a federation of local governments with land-use authority, tasked with preserving and protecting the area’s unique amenities and environment.

This is something so rare that a web search of trusts related to land use yields many references to them as private agreements between non-profit or individual landowners, sometimes working with government, but not integrated into government.

In the late 1960s, developers and speculators drew up huge subdivisions of city-sized lots for many of the islands, planning instant new villages, towns, and mega-resorts. The alarmed Social Credit government put on the brakes, freezing lot sizes to a 10-acre minimum.

Salt Spring Island - The Islands Trust

Still, large-scale developments and industrial uses could easily wipe out forests, Garry oak meadows, and suck fresh-water supplies dry. What to do?

In 1973, the New Democratic government toured the area, surveyed the residents, and wrote a report that recommended creating an Islands Trust. By late 1974, it became law.

(In 1973, the NDP government also created the Agricultural Land Reserve, overseen by the Agricultural Land Commission, to slow down an average of 6,000 prime, fertile acres per year from disappearing to development. The ALR experiment is now facing radical retooling by the current B.C. government, but that’s another story.)

The Islands Trust Act makes clear that the islands are for all British Columbians, not just the locals. National parks, similarly, are for all Canadians. Some of them have permanent residents, but they’re bunched in towns, with very limited footprints over the entire area. The Trust islands have private landowners living and making their livings throughout the populated islands.

The Trust provides all local planning services, while advocating for the Trust Area and administering the Trust Fund. Delivery of all other local government services is through bodies tied to regional district (primarily), provincial, and federal agencies. The following example of Salt Spring’s government-service delivery is similar to other Trust islands.

Salt Spring Island - The Islands Trust Experiment

A common pressure on local governments is the unrelenting need to increase the local tax base to pay for infrastructure and amenities, very often by welcoming developments that are hard on natural land and water features. The Islands Trust Act separates the service delivery function from the land-use planning function, with its added protective mandate. Service demands no longer drive, to any great extent, land-use decisions.

Many people move to these islands without any knowledge or understanding of this history, purpose, and division of responsibilities. They often remain unaware of the basics until they run into problems and struggle to figure out how the place works.

Long-time residents can be just as thrown by a patchwork of regulatory bodies, with offices and meeting rooms over scattered locations. There’s no obvious town or city hall and no Welcome Wagon primers to introduce who’s where, what, and why. Documents abound, in print and online, but few residents are familiar with where they are, and far fewer still have read them.

Builders and business people who present the Islands Trust with unusual or ambitious plans for developing a property, especially if it requires rezoning, can find themselves on a steep learning curve about the Trust’s requirements and processes.

Canny developers commonly buy land that’s relatively cheap because of its zoning, then work to get it reclassified. This saves money that, eventually, feeds into profits. Successful rezoning bids are usually built on trade-offs that benefit the tax base, select community services, or the civic aims of elected representatives.

Within the Trust federation, rezoning must fit environmental requirements and broad community interests and values. Through regular, public Local Trust Committee meetings, islanders can weigh in about land use and zonings. This makes for open and responsive local government, and not surprisingly, it also makes for an engaged local community. Passions can run high. Singer-songwriter Valdy, a long-time Salt Spring resident, calls this place “an argument surrounded by water”.

These differences of opinion are good, however. People learn about the system and each other. In keeping with small-town life, most are good at remaining civil and caring through their everyday interactions.

And developers learn, often after investing money, time, effort, and emotion, that the usual tactics to convince local governments to repurpose land don’t work well here. Zoning and other by-laws can be amended, but that’s a different process entirely from fashioning trade-offs to achieve development ends.

This riles residents who want to make good livings and grow their businesses the way they could in a municipality, while enjoying a bucolic lifestyle rich with nature.

It ‘s around this nub that the Trust experiment may eventually come to an end, with Bowen Island leading the way. A 1991 referendum to incorporate failed, but a 1999 one passed. The Bowen Island Municipality remains in the Trust, which must approve any changes to the Official Community Plan and review all bylaw additions and amendments. The mayor and council, however, can appeal to the B.C. minister in charge of the Trust to override any of its requirements.

Bowen Islanders now support a burgeoning local bureaucracy and many service costs once covered by the Trust and B.C. government. Roads and policing are especially expensive for a small community to fund. Some formerly pro-incorporation people make clear their dissatisfactions and even predict Bowen’s devolution to a suburb of West Vancouver.

Were Salt Spring Island to become a municipality – and there’s a continual push for this by a local group called Islanders for Self-Government – 35-40 per cent of Trust’s tax support would vanish, effectively gutting the Trust. ISGers argue that the Trust would be as strong as ever, but how so, when local politicians have a trump card in the B.C. government?

In 2002, Salt Spring held a referendum on incorporating. The furor of debate from both sides made it hard to tell which would win, but when the tallying was done, 70 per cent said no.

Nonetheless, last fall, the B.C. government funded the first of a two-part local governance study, completed last fall. If they fund the second part, it would lead to another referendum, by 2018 at the latest. ISGers are working hard with local and provincial politicians to win this time … or maybe the next, or the next.

Will the Islands Trust experiment be running strong by its 50th anniversary, in 2024? Hard to say. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, come visit. It really is a lovely, rare, biodiverse place – a backwater needing regular municipal governance to some, a world leader in eco-conscious governance to others, who seek improvements to existing agencies, not replacement.

References:

The Islands Trust Story: Celebrating 35 Years, 1974-2009 by Peter Lamb, 30 pages, available in print and online for free.
Islands Trust: http://www.islandstrust.bc.ca; lots of links
Islanders for Self-Government: http://www.islandgov.org/

Brenda Guiled grew up in Jasper National Park, first visited Salt Spring Island in 1972 as a new Zoology graduate, and moved there in 2002. She favours the Trust-regional-district governance system, with improvements made using built-in means.

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Norbert Schlenker
Guest
Norbert Schlenker

Your continuing to write up the history of the Trust area, on the Exchange, is informative, especially for newer arrivals. However, your editorializing re incorporation misstates facts quite badly. To pick just two: 1) Salt Spring’s incorporation will “gut the Trust”. This canard was trotted out at the time of the last referendum, and it’s simply untrue. More recently, Linda Adams, the Trust’s chief administrative officer, estimated that incorporation here would require cutbacks at head office and/or tax increases elsewhere in the Trust area of less than $100 per household. In process right now is a detailed look at how… Read more »

John Macpherson
Guest
John Macpherson

Brenda, your accounting leaves out important facts and contains misrepresentations without regard to some facts. 1. Let’s get rid of the myth that municipalities necessarily cost more and will increase taxes faster than our current decentralized system. In 2000 the ‘average’ Salt Spring property (as per average assessment) paid $768 in taxes to our local taxing authorities – the CRD, the Trust and the Fire District. In 2013 the average property paid $1808, an increase of over 135%! Several nearby municipalities saw much lower tax increases. In the same period inflation in BC was a mere 26%. 2. Let’s get… Read more »

scott simmons
Guest
scott simmons

As someone who tries to go to all the LTC (Local Trust Council) meeting every month to see the subdivision development applications I disagree with your article. Last month 5 neighbors spoke against the development on Ashya road at the open house the night before the LTC meeting. It was passed the next day by the LTC even though there was local opposition. Most subdivisions seem to get the rubber stamp from the LTC because the application is actually processed by the ministry of Transport unless there is a variance needed like the new subdivision on Shepard Hills. I think… Read more »

Anne Parkinson
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Anne Parkinson

I arrived on SSI a year ago after 34 years as a homeowner in the Municipality of Oak Bay. I agree with Brenda Guiled – municipal status does not improve building, servicing and monetary issues. Doesn’t watching issues in Victoria such as sewage treatment, Blue Bridge, SOF Arena, selling of closed school lands, variances for condo towers, to name only a few, give anyone pause to consider who Mayor and Council of a Municipality really serve? I sat through too many ‘public’ meetings late into the night where the final vote of the Mayor and Council went to the developer… Read more »

bornonsaltspring
Guest
bornonsaltspring

Can’t help but think the timing of these articles coincides with the upcoming election…which leads me to believe/speculate that at least one candidate will be coming out against incorporation during her campaign. I agree with the comments from Norbert, Scott and John. This is not the first time you and other anti-incorporationists have made the completely unsubstantiable claim the Trust will be “gutted” when Salt Spring incorporates. Logic would dictate that you should be completely supportive of moving to the incorporation study, since theoretically it should prove your claim. However, as an active participant in the debate for a number… Read more »

bornonsaltspring
Guest
bornonsaltspring

The “referendum” referred to was a referendum on whether SSI should be a municipality and was not a function of SSI being in the Islands Trust Area. And, what is not mentioned in the article is that only about 50% of eligible voters in 2002 voted…not a great turnout by any measurement. So, 70% of 50% = 35% of islanders actually voted against incorporating. The latest polling I am aware of was done 3 years ago (after 10 years of discussion on the issue) which suggested 60% of islanders were then in support of incorporating. A full incorporation study will… Read more »

Brenda Guiled
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Brenda Guiled

This piece says nothing against governance studies and the need to improve local governance. The brief bio’ at the end concludes with this latter. It also includes my wish to improve it within the current system, which seems fair to note. The larger fairness that really matters is that these studies be presented as such, and the last one wasn’t entirely. Richard Kerr (who actively supported incorporation in the 2002 referendum) stated one concern of several regarding its fairness in his Driftwood article about the Local Community Commission option, http://gulfislandsdriftwood.com/opinion/lcc-governance-alternative/#.VEv652d0yxA: “Since the LCC option already exists under provincial legislation, could… Read more »

John Macpherson
Guest
John Macpherson

Brenda, you do not acknowledge any of the errors that have been pointed out eg. exploding taxes, which have already happened – a 135% increase from 2000-2013. As to improving the current system, that has always been possible, but it does not change the nature of the system. You seem to put great faith in a LCC, which can only be granted and/or taken away by the CRD where Salt Spring have just one vote among 26. That is not likely to happen. If you believe otherwise, then what steps have you and other anti-incorporationists taken to make it happen?… Read more »

Timothy Harvey
Guest
Timothy Harvey

Scott, your views on milking the cash cow of development are exactly why we should avoid municipal government, as well as curtail the current rubber stamping habits of the municipal trust. True, development can create a carefully-managed feeding frenzy, but where would this take Salt Spring? It won’t be the Salt Spring that we know and love. It currently takes more creativity to make a living here, and that is prtly why the island tends to attract and retain creative people. An economy can’t be expected to be conventional in a more environmentally responsible community. We can see what has… Read more »

scott simmons
Guest
scott simmons

So it’s best to keep it the way it is and let developers develop lots on every far flung property creating more rural sprawl with virtually no over all master plan? Let the developers reap in large profits and contribute nothing to our local infrastructure? Let the developers continue to donate the worst land they have to PARC for their minimum 5% park dedication(if they have to)? One has to realize that the current system is a developers dream. They are in the drives seat NOW. Please Timothy tell me how they are not in the drivers seat now?

Timothy Harvey
Guest
Timothy Harvey

Excuse me, Scott! I made a typo. I wrote: “as well as curtail the current rubber stamping habits of the municipal trust,” but I meant to write: “as well as curtail the current rubber stamping habits of the Island’s Trust”. It was late when I made that post. YES! You are correct! Developers, such as the recent South End situation where neighbors were ignored attests, are in the driver’s seat. Sometimes I think that campaign slogans like “For a balanced approached” should be changed to “You balance my books, I’ll balance my views”. Had I not made the typo last… Read more »

scott simmons
Guest
scott simmons

In my opinion the trust is a paper tiger that has no actual power to preserve and protect the island. Just look at the state of St Mary lake and look at all the illegal suits and or illegal resort cabins around the lake. Most jurisdictions protect their drinking water reservoirs. What has the trust done? It has enacted the new bylaw 154 but what have they actually done? Anything? Have they cracked down on one illegal suite? Have they counted the cabins at the various resorts? Have they checked one septic system? In reality St Mary lake is a… Read more »

John Macpherson
Guest
John Macpherson

Yes, ‘red herring’ crossed my mind too. It’s hard to believe anyone could go on with this idea knowing it adds virtually nothing substantive. So it appears like deliberate obfuscation. Thanks for the added clarification. I still want to know what tools Brenda thinks the current system has for the community to make adjustments. As you’ve pointed out, power lies elsewhere. The overwhelming question is whether the anti incorporation folks will debate on the facts of the LCC idea, tax increases, impact on the Trust etc. If not, the question is about intellectual integrity.

Timothy Harvey
Guest
Timothy Harvey

Interesting food for thought, Scott. Thanks for posting your views. The trouble with interest groups is that they find a way of getting into power in electoral politics. I wouldn’t think Salt Springers would vote Joe Developer into power, but then again I didn’t think Canada would vote Joe Oil into power and turn Alberta into a wasteland. Those with capital have a way steering votes their way and Joe Preservation will always be comparatively underfunded at campaign time. The way I see it, the Trust is currently quite ineffective and its inability to get much done means there’s never… Read more »

Brenda Guiled
Guest
Brenda Guiled

I’m puzzled about why I’d acknowledge an error that’s been pointed out when it doesn’t exist? The word ‘tax’ appears three times in my article, twice in general terms about local government tax bases (not specifically Salt Spring), and once about SSI’s total contribution to the Trust. Nowhere do I say anything about exploding taxes, on Salt Spring or anywhere. My one posted comment doesn’t have anything about taxes. I expect you’re reacting to this: “Bowen Islanders now support a burgeoning local bureaucracy and many service costs once covered by the Trust and B.C. government.” This is simply true. The… Read more »

Norbert Schlenker
Guest
Norbert Schlenker

Timothy, You bring up a lot of items, so let me address a few of them. First, I’m sure I come across as an advocate of incorporation, but all I really want is a chance for residents to consider the option. Put the issues and the numbers on the table. Let the pros and cons hash it out on the Exchange, in the Driftwood, at public meetings, over coffee at a friend’s house. Then let’s vote on it. That didn’t happen in 2002. There was no pro side whatsoever. (ISG was founded after that referendum.) The con side was very… Read more »

John Macpherson
Guest
John Macpherson

While the piece has some useful information, it has some shortfalls and some misstatements of fact. Saying that services previously ‘covered’ by the Trust are now paid for by islanders disguises the fact that islanders were already paying for those services by way of taxes to the Trust in the first place. Maybe just an oversight on your part but still, it creates a false impression of burden that wasn’t there before. Citing anecdotal evidence of dissatsfaction with incorporation is just cherry picking. The question is, why any particular cherry if not to massage perception? I used the word ‘exploding’… Read more »

Timothy Harvey
Guest
Timothy Harvey

I hear what you’re saying in many respects Norbert, but I’m not sold. Your last paragraphs are nothing short of an inspirational tour de force. However, when I look at governments of all levels I see that despite the ideals you’ve expressed sounding great on paper, democracy as practiced in the 21st century most often fails in practice. It would take an unbroken string of exceptional governments to prevent great damage being done to the island way of life. We know how 4-year terms tend to go. Incoming governments want a grand achievement to hang their hat on. Heads butt.… Read more »

Brenda Guiled
Guest
Brenda Guiled

Re: gutted — Most people, if they lost 35-40 per cent of their income, would consider it gutted. You don’t, hence you don’t like the word. That’s just a difference of opinion. And yet you introduce, out of the blue, the word “exploding” for tax increases that may have been long overdue and give value for $$ proposed or spent. That, too, may be just a difference of opinion, or it may go deeper. In any case, here’s the problem with you arguing semantics, while using freighted language yourself: You were chair of the purportedly neutral and entirely fair, factual… Read more »

John Macpherson
Guest
John Macpherson

So I use one colorful word and I’m decreed to be showing my colors? Gives one pause for thought. Whatever we call an increase in taxes generally, or an increase in taxes 550% greater than the inflation rate and whether this represents good value or not, doesn’t change what I’ve said before: let’s get rid of any prejudgment that a municipality is going to leave taxpayers somehow much worse off than before. It is a fact that some municipalities did not grow their taxes so much as we’ve experienced, and it is a fact also that some like Metchosin continue… Read more »

Brenda Guiled
Guest
Brenda Guiled

You ascribed the “one colorful word” to me, although the piece says nothing about tax increases. That’s my deeper concern. A number of Trust experts gave stiff feedback on drafts of the article, and I revised it considerably. None of them had trouble with the words that trouble you. They seem to need educating too. But enough back and for about words for now. I want to thank you for taking no issue with my preference for improving our current form of governance, a position I will continue to be clear and open about, so others can judge accordingly. And… Read more »

Reuben Kaufman
Guest
Reuben Kaufman

My wife and I moved to the island 3 years ago, and boy how grateful we are to have settled here! And so it is true that we are ignorant about our arcane form of government. There are times that I scratch my head in bewilderment, but I genuinely want to be better informed about both sides of the issue, in case we’re ever given the opportunity to decide on one course or the other. One thing I will say: I can’t imagine a more dysfunctional process I experienced on “Part A” of last year’s governance study. To almost all… Read more »

Artist3d
Guest

Putting the Islands Trust on the back burner would likely save millions! Although we can supposedly vote for them we certainly have no option to vote them out so where is the real democratic choice?. It’s a perfect symmetry of power entrenchment that has exhausted its dollar for green advantages. As a proponent of ‘less is more’ when it comes to endlessly funding governments on their quest to create continuous streams of legislation and bureaucracy “because that is what the job description calls for”, I voted against incorporation last time just to avoid yet another layer of taxation. Since then… Read more »

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