One day, in the not-too-distant future COVID-19 will be an unhappy memory. It was a problem contained, certainly on these islands so far, by a coordinated and cooperative spirit. We wear our masks, keep our distance and get on with our lives.
Now I believe we should apply that same cooperative spirit to solving the critical problems facing this precious little island we call home. There are substantial challenges that can only be properly addressed jointly and NOT in the singular and piecemeal way that they are being dealt with in the past.
If Salt Spring is to flourish it is imperative that we plan for the future, seeking integrated solutions that are both urgent and eminently feasible.
Posted proudly on the wall by my home office desk are the words “Healthy People, Healthy Society, and Healthy Environment”. In almost every meeting, I point to them saying that one of these cannot exist without the other.
I want to kick off the New Year by telling you a little about my work as an Islands Trust Trustee so that you can be more informed and perhaps even inspired to want to know more, get involved or show your support.
Being an elected official on Salt Spring is tricky business. Our system of governance is somewhat complicated with responsibilities divided between different levels of government (provincial, Capital Regional District and Islands Trust) as well as improvement districts. Yet our problems tend to slice across rather than fit neatly within one body. My inclination is to ignore these constructed boundaries and to seek the best solutions for the community.
It has taken some time, but I believe the Islands Trust is now working on what matters to residents the most: Housing, Ganges Village, water sustainability and protecting our environment, especially the Coastal Douglas fir zone, the emerald in Salt Spring’s crown. Not only are these all interrelated and intertwined, we must also factor in Reconciliation, equity and climate change.
Housing: Housing is in crisis and there is good evidence to show that the pandemic has compounded the problem as worried urban dwellers migrate to less dense – and theoretically safer – rural communities. But these new Saltspringers are merely the tip of the housing iceberg as decent, affordable homes remain increasingly unapproachable for young islanders.
Rental supply is chronically low with a high proportion of renters paying more than 30 per cent of their income on keeping a roof over their heads. At the same time home ownership is becoming progressively out of reach for many households, aggravated by the undeniable fact that islanders have lower incomes than their regional counterparts and that median incomes, according to census figures, are far behind those throughout the rest of BC.
The housing shortage has a considerable impact way beyond the broken dreams of young people wanting to bring up their own families on the island they themselves grew up on. A few years ago, the Community Economic Development Commission conducted a survey of island employers, almost half of whom said that the affordability or availability of housing had a serious impact on their ability to attract or keep employees.
For almost two decades, report after report has recognised the island’s housing situation as broken and made a series of recommendations. We know that: Rental supply is dire, the cost of housing on the island is simply beyond the reach of a majority of islanders, that seniors and young families are particularly vulnerable to housing stress, and that too many people are reduced to living in travel trailers, accessory buildings and boats.
The solution, of course, is to build a greater variety of homes, more affordable homes and with affordable, realistic rents. Certainly, some were built – not enough, but nothing is ever that simple.
Sprawling development, even with large lot sizes, is anathema to the culture of these islands, the impact on the environment and sensitive ecosystems could be disastrous, while an increase in impervious road surfaces with the resultant polluted runoff, increased traffic and its accompanying air pollution all contribute to global climate change.
But the indisputable fact remains – unless we resolve Salt Spring’s shortage of affordable, attractive housing this island will become moribund, a rustic theme park of the middle aged and middle class that imports its daily labor from off island. Of course, there are both benefits and harms to increasing the housing stock, but I believe we cannot afford any further indecision and that any potential harm can be readily ameliorated. Our decisions must be balanced and be acutely aware of social, environmental and economic elements and must be rooted in ecology and justice.
Ganges Village: Ganges Village is the heartbeat of the island. It is the obvious place to house a diverse and slowly growing community, but it is stifled by a moratorium on new water connections. If the lack of water is harming the village on one side, it is too much water on the other. Rising sea levels will reclaim portions of the village that were constructed by historic land filling activities. A number of significant landmarks are in need of restoration or are being abandoned/repurposed, including the fire hall, Mahon Hall, and the middle school. These buildings along with vital infrastructure need to be considered in an overall plan that carries the village well into the future.
Environment: Protecting these ecosystems goes far beyond merely protecting them for their own sake. They provide our island community not only with environmental benefits, but also with strong economic, social and cultural ones. Salt Spring’s landscape is made up of a collection of ecosystems called the Coastal Douglas Fir (CDF) zone. Everything we love about this island is fundamentally linked to the CDF zone. The natural landscapes sustain our local farmers by providing fodder for their animals, and the soil and water to support apple orchards and all of the abundant, healthy, locally grown food that we value so much. These ecosystems are also a cultural and spiritual refuge for us as we enjoy their moss-covered rock vistas, our favourite swimming spots, stunning hiking trails, streams and tidal pools. It is now scientifically proven that connecting with nature has the power to counter illness, boost our immune systems, and promote well-being. Finally, healthy and resilient forest ecosystems remove carbon dioxide from the air and store carbon, all while buffering against strong winds and preventing erosion of our shorelines and steep slopes. We need to take care of the environment so that it sustains us into the future.
Water Sustainability: Fresh water is vital to Salt Spring’s landscapes, communities and economies. We know that this natural resource faces an increasingly uncertain future with shifting climate and hydrology, and intense cumulative pressures.
Salt Spring is entering an era of water insecurity and we recognize that the status quo for managing and governing water must change to reflect these new realities. The Salt Spring Island Watershed Protection Alliance (SSIWPA) was created in 2013 to facilitate a coordinated approach to the management and protection of watersheds on the island and is poised to help its member agencies take on leading roles in water decision-making and management, and to explore new water initiatives and partnerships.
We must also embrace a collaborative approach, learning how Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours can work together to protect water and ensure that it is managed fairly. To better support decision-makers in advancing effective, modernized land and water use planning, we need to develop a plan that can strategically guide and prioritize watershed protection work on a long-term basis.
This was only an introduction to what I believe is important work, but I will commit to keeping you better informed.
I have told you a little about my work as an Islands Trust Trustee and have committed myself to telling you more, so now how can you get involved or show your support in 2021 and beyond? There will be at least two task forces seeking hard-working members: Ganges Village and Housing and quite possibly a third for Coastal Douglas Fir zone protection. There will be community information meetings designed to share information and seek input on possible solutions. Eventually, there will be public hearings to consider draft bylaws to adopt changes to the official community plan or land use bylaws.
These are all opportunities for you to get informed and involved. It is only with your cooperation that we can develop integrated solutions that will solve the problems we face.
Over the holidays I was telling a friend about my work and how it is interrelated and intertwined, and he said “so presumably, we really only need to solve just one of them.” You know... he is right.