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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.


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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