We were lucky enough to have both Islands Trustees as special guests at this ASK Salt Spring Zoom gathering, with Peter Grove joining fifteen of us for the entire time, and Laura Patrick joining us at about 12:30. While Francis Bread took the spotlight for much of the gathering, we also learned about Islands Trust challenges, logging, and housing restrictions and opportunities.
After a heartfelt territorial acknowledgement, Peter began by sharing some of his thoughts and concerns. He expressed his horror with the events rocking our neighbor to the south and his deep, on-going concerns about COVID. These terrible dramas have forced us to recognize what is really important in our lives.
He had read the ASK Salt Spring report from Gary Holman’s visit last week and asked us to recognize how hard Gary is working on so many fronts to address our local needs. And, to recognize how much he is accomplishing.
Peter then briefly addressed some Local Trust Committee issues, primarily housing. He reminded us that the Islands Trust is limited in its ability to address concerns such as homelessness. The issue of housing is extremely-complex, involving many entities- especially the province - that one group alone cannot solve it. He has hopes that the Islands Trust’s newly-established Housing Challenges and Solutions Committee will result in some productive outcomes.
He identified water as our biggest housing challenge, remarking that we have too much in the winter and too little in the summer. A storage and distribution issue, the Islands Trust is promoting rainwater harvesting as part of the solution. Despite this potential solution, Peter shared that the Islands Trust faces challenges from Island Health when catchment proposals result in several homes on one water system.
He would like it to be easier for tiny homes to be built on Salt Spring, but he also noted that there are examples of tiny home communities that are not working out as expected. Surprising to some, we also learned that there are almost no successful tiny home communities in British Columbia, largely due to its building codes requiring minimum square footage and a bathroom.
In addition to restrictive building codes, it was noted that, while building a tiny home may be relatively-simple, acquiring the land with sufficient water and services can be a challenge. And, while rainwater catchment may seem to be the logical solution, Island Health requirements intervene to add complexities, often resulting in a solution that is both difficult as well as expensive.
Peter remembers that when he arrived on Salt Spring many years ago, there was too much available housing, and real estate agents worried that supply was negatively-impacting home prices. Now, of course, this has all changed, but Peter did remind us that housing does tend to be a moving target with constantly-changing supply and demand.
The Islands Trust’s ability to rezone is an important component of housing availability, but it often requires a modification to the Official Community Plan. While zoning is a powerful tool, Peter reminded us that the Island Trust cannot own land, nor can it build homes. That important role rests with CRD and BC Housing.
At last week’s ASK Salt Spring gathering, Gary asked us to find out why the proposed Bylaw 471 that would allow Islands Trust to issue Temporary Use Permits for residential property had been - seemingly - abandoned. Peter replied that it had been decided at the last Local Trust Committee meeting that it would be wiser to wait for the recommendations of the Housing Challenges and Solutions Committee before proceeding.
The conversation shifted to Francis Bread. Peter told us that he had received - and personally replied to - almost 400 emails in the past few days about Francis Bread. Unfortunately, some of them were angry and even abusive.
Many do not seem to understand that it was the owners of Francis Bread who had requested the zoning change. Committed to adhering to all regulations, Francis Bread owners had learned from Island Health that they needed a commercial kitchen to produce their bread for sale. So - they applied for a building permit to put a commercial kitchen in an existing (accessory) outbuilding which was approved. Unfortunately, Islands Trust does not allow kitchens in accessory buildings - placing them in a dilemma. While some might have continued to operate illegally, these owners applied for the recommended zoning change in March 2020 to adhere to these two conflicting requirements.
This issue came to the forefront of public attention as the result of an Islands Trust rule that, when applying for a zoning change, the illegal activity must cease until the zoning has been approved. In December 2020, Islands Trust bylaw enforcement wrote a letter to Francis Bread owners telling them to close down during the rezoning process. It was then that Francis Bread owners went to the community that so loves them to ask for their support.
Quickly catching fire, somewhat fueled by social media, many Islanders united to plead that Islands Trust let Francis Bread continue to operate during the long rezoning process. Gaining fuel from postings online, those involved were invited to attend this ASK Salt Spring gathering to participate in a respectful conversation seeking a solution to this issue.
While Peter supports the process of asking rezoning applicants to stop illegal activities until the zoning is approved - as these activities can often be offensive - he is confident that Islands Trustees will find a sensible solution when this issue is decided at the next (virtual) Local Trust Committee meeting this coming Tuesday, January 19, 2021.
When a participant questioned whether a Temporary Use Permit would be a simple solution while the rezoning process was underway, Peter agreed that it had potential but that the owners were seeking a more permanent solution. Peter assured us that he needs no more input from the community concerning local feelings about this issue.
When asked why a rezoning application submitted in March 2020 has not yet been addressed by the Local Trust Committee, Peter was not sure what caused the delay, but he suspected that staff changes may had created the delay. COVID also put everything on hold while administrative process were sorted out. A participant asked that the reason for this delay be further explored to ensure that it does not happen again. Another suggested that, as the Francis Bread application was delayed by nearly a year from their March 2020 application, they should be allowed to continue operating until the zoning has been approved.
We learned that one of the reasons for these staff changes is that all of our Island Trust staff make significantly-less income than planners in municipalities, even though their job requirements are similar. This is due to the fact that our staff belong to a provincial union for regional employees instead of a municipal one. While Salt Spring is a great training ground for young, less-experienced staff, too often too many leave too soon for higher salaries.
Peter agreed that this is a problem although he does not hold much hope of it changing in the near future. As a provincial issue, Adam is aware of the problem and is trying to address it.
Peter also reminded us that significant delays addressing zoning changes are largely due to provincial requirements that local Islands Trustees cannot change.
When asked whether anything could be done locally to fast track priority rezoning requests, Peter reminded us, that although a request could be placed higher on the list if it were an emergency, everyone requesting rezoning feels that their issue should be addressed immediately. We were also reminded that consultation - especially with groups such as First Nations - takes time despite urgency on the part of our Islands Trustees.
One participant suggested that this Francis Bread concern resembles the recent public outcry concerning Beachside Cafe. Peter was asked if Islands Trust had anyone in their organization who tracked issues to get ahead of the flammable ones through an early public relations initiative. It was suggested that these staff be trained to mitigate community responses before they flare out of control. Peter was not convinced that the issues that will engulf the community are easily-predictable.
He believes that too many buy property on Salt Spring convinced that they can easily change zoning and that they should recognize the complexity of changing any Salt Spring zoning. He also reminded us that, while he did agree that it takes time, 80% of the rezoning requests have been approved during the nine years he has been an Islands Trustee.
Switching gears to logging on private property, Peter spoke of the need for protection of our embattled Coastal Douglas firs. He told us that these important, precious, rare, and fire-resistant elements of our ecosystem have been mapped on Salt Spring. Initially hoping that some clear areas of concentration would allow these trees to be protected by a Development Permit Area designation (requiring a variance and public input to log) Peter was disappointed to learn that our Coastal Douglas fir were scattered throughout the island. While supportive of declaring all of Salt Spring a Development Permit Area, Peter recognizes that this is still only a dream with many challenges to navigate.
Peter is committed that any logging regulations would be designed to manage, rather than prohibiting, it. He envisions a solution that would require those desiring to log their land to first provide Islands Trust with a long-term plan for their property. It is a provincially-supported right to log on private land. He reminded us of the importance of logging to British Columbia and its centrality to many livelihoods on Salt Spring. He likened it to the United State’s deeply-rooted right to carry firearms; British Columbians have a long tradition of logging that should not be ignored.
When asked about Galiano Island’s requirement that Islands Trust pre-approve logging on private property, Peter believes that this solution has not worked, exacerbating already-strong divisions over this issue.
When asked about Islands Trust bylaw enforcement, a focus of several previous ASK Salt Spring gatherings, it was Peter’s feeling that, while we could always use more enforcement, the current staffing levels of two officers, with one on Salt Spring full-time, was adequate for now. (He reminded us that the Islands Trust budget is over $8 million, and he is not seeking ways to increase Islands Trust expenditures.) While Peter receives regular communications from bylaw officers, it is generally accepted that elected Islands Trustees should only intervene in rare cases. While there is always room for improvement in bylaw enforcement, Peter feels that activities in the area are adequate.
Noting the importance of community input, Peter would like to see more attend Islands Trust meetings. It was suggested that the limitations of the Town Hall (especially strict time limitations and the priority placed on items already on the agenda ) could be improved to get more meaningful community input. While Peter reminded us that Islands Trust does nothing without community engagement processes, it was suggested that the addition of a regular, less-formal opportunity for the community to engage at monthly meetings may be valuable. Peter agreed and told us that this has been considered but that nothing has yet happened.
Peter was asked about the fact that Salt Spring pays approximately $400,000 more to Islands Trust than it gets back in services. During the incorporation initiative, Salt Springers were told that the Islands Trust would further explore this issue. Has anything happened? While Peter told us that the Executive Committee is looking into this inequity, he also reminded us that, in a federation, it is not uncommon that some members contribute more than others.
When it was questioned why the density transfer option (the ability of an owner in a designated area to sell development rights to another) was only available to very limited areas, Peter said that he believed that the Housing Challenges and Solutions Committee may have some recommendations about expanding this density transfer opportunity.
As participants appeared to have asked all their Island Trust-related questions for Peter, the conversation switched to local vaccinations. We learned from a participant that our care home residents are scheduled to be vaccinated this coming Tuesday (January 19) and that, while decisions are not yet firm, it appears that locations like pharmacies may be vaccination areas. (There are simply too many Salt Springers who do not have doctors to rely only on our General Practitioners for Salt Spring vaccinations.) Peter reminded us of the importance of patience. . .and what a miracle it is that we have a vaccination so soon.
Laura arrived, happy to join us after a lengthy joint North and South Pender community information meeting. She explained that one of the reasons that the proposed Bylaw 471, which allows Temporary Use Permits for residential use, had been referred to the Housing Challenges and Solutions planning project was because it had become too narrow in application. For example, it no longer addressed tiny homes, and Laura would like to see a path towards legalizing tiny homes.
We were reminded that there are many folks living in tents. The conversation turned to the likelihood that a monitored, serviced, temporary encampment might be developed on Salt Spring. When asked if temporary encampments would need zoning approval, Laura responded that under the current health emergency orders, an encampment could be considered an emergency response facility, which is already allowed in most zones. If an encampment were to be established during the emergency, and it was managed and operating well, support for ongoing operation is likely. On the other hand, if an encampment is not being well managed, having the ability to shut it down after the emergency has passed is important for the community.
Laura was asked why she supports taking the time to engage the community about its vision for housing (Don’t we all know what Salt Spring wants?). She responded that she believes that most Salt Springers want to live in a diverse, healthy community within a healthy environment. She is not sure that enough islanders understand the severity of the housing crisis. She believes we must quickly confirm a common vision and build support to take the urgent actions necessary.
Too soon, it was 1:00 PM. While promising to gather next Friday to welcome the committed Restorative Justice volunteers to learn how they fit into the puzzle of safety in our community, we all enthusiastically thanked Peter and Laura for offering their perspectives and for listening to our questions and concerns. All of us learned a great deal during this gathering, pressing our Leave Meeting button with more confidence that our popular Francis Bread will continue to offer and serve us their delicious bread.