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Incorporation: One Bad Council

    Editorial & Opinions, Governance & Politics    September 8, 2017

Before moving to Salt Spring fifteen years ago, I lived in the small town of Port Hope on Lake Ontario, about an hour east of Toronto. The town’s population was the same size as Salt Spring’s, and it had a similar mix of farmers, business owners, artists and writers (among them Farley Mowat). Through unusual circumstances we needn’t go into, Port Hope had kept its heritage charm while neighbouring towns were encircled by car lots, big-box malls, and sprawling bedroom suburbs.

Ever since Victorian times, Port Hope had been run on the municipal system now being mooted for Salt Spring: a mayor and six councillors with near-total authority over land use, planning, and many other matters. Like national and provincial governments, councils can change radically at election time. Some are good, most are middling, and a few are disastrously bad. It is never easy for a small community to find seven smart and trustworthy people to run for office every few years, especially when developers fund candidates they hope will do their bidding. It takes only one bad council to spoil a place forever. I saw this happen in Port Hope.

North Americans are prone to believing that growth is always good. Deep within our culture lies the old notion we must tame a wilderness, and the measure of our success is how many buildings and people we can strew across the landscape.

Port Hope’s undoing began when the town enlarged its boundary to allow for future growth under a new Community Plan. In theory, a community’s plan is the template all development must follow.  But in practice, the devil is lurking in his usual spot –among the details.  Developers demand exemptions from things they don’t like or don’t want to pay for.  And the sad truth is that misguided municipalities, often in debt and desperate for growth, cave in.

Quickly yet quietly, farms around Port Hope were bought up by numbered companies. Most of these turned out to belong to one aggressive developer. When I asked town officials what was going on, they told me not to worry; yes, an ambitious application had been received, but Council had not yet discussed it, and likely nothing would happen for years.

Things moved fast. The council’s first “public information meeting” (required by provincial law) was far from informative and held on the Friday evening of a long weekend. Even so, hundreds showed up, about nine in ten wanting Council to reject or rethink the proposal. The councillors were a mix like you might find anywhere: idealists, axe-grinders, and folk with little else to do. Most had been kept in the dark by Town Hall insiders bent on following the developer’s wishes. The latter group, which included the mayor and seemed to have a majority of one, insisted that their “hands were tied.” They had no choice but to rubber-stamp the project, they said, since the developer had made it clear he would brook no concessions and was ready to sue the town, at great expense, if it thwarted his right to do exactly what he wanted with his land.

Over a two-year political and legal fight, concerned citizens unearthed the scheme’s alarming details. It would nearly double Port Hope’s population at a stroke, yet make no provision for schools, clinics, sports grounds, workplaces, or parkland. The developer claimed he didn’t need such amenities because this would be an “aging-in-place community” for seniors only. Objectors saw that as a ruse, crafted for maximum profit with minimum public benefit and control. (The retail value on completion worked out at more than a billion dollars at the time.) The Community Plan’s density limit was ignored, and the nearest its “Waterfront Trail” would come to any water was at the sewage pumping station. The developer attacked his critics as “defamatory” and was heard boasting that small towns are push-overs.

The citizens group, to which I belonged, was not trying to stop the project altogether. We wanted it to abide by the Community Plan, and be approved in phases instead of all at once. But neither the developer nor his friends on Council would back down. Over two years we ran up a legal bill of some $80,000 (it would have been twice that if lawyers and experts hadn’t volunteered their help). Our only victory was delay. When I revisited Port Hope ten years later, the scheme had stalled after the 2008 crash. Yet most of the damage had been done. The completed section was a cramped, cheaply-built commuter suburb amid bulldozed fields and mounds of weeds. There was no seniors’ residence in sight.

As for me, I moved to Salt Spring, one of whose major attractions was the unique protection of the Islands Trust. By uniting our islands in a structure akin to a federation, the Trust makes us far stronger than a row of dominoes which big money can knock over, one by one. Make no mistake: Salt Spring’s incorporation would cripple the Trust. Please vote NO to a mayor and council.

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