Commentary on "Strengthening the Islands Trust" Paper

"Strengthening the Islands Trust" is a paper prepared by a "ROOTS" group based on Saltspring Island. Two copies of this paper were placed in the Thetis Island library, so I conclude that someone (the local Trustees?) believes the paper has significance for Thetis. Having taken the time to read it, I offer the following comments. My qualifications for these comments are both personal and professional. I have a deep interest in and commitment to working with others to build a strong, sustainable community. I became a landowner and resident of Thetis in the late 1980's and participated in the management of some of the communities service organizations for over ten years. For two decades prior to my residency on Thetis, I was a frequent visitor to various islands to enjoy the quaint rural lifestyle, farmlands, forests, and particularly the shorelines. I have been a professional land use planner for some 30 years, often engaged by the Province and often at a high policy level, but also developing pragmatic regional land use plans and protected area plans. I have often been involved in establishing or advising on governance and regulatory regimes. This commentary is not intended as an advocacy position but simply as a partial rebuttal to the paper in review.

As the title makes clear, the paper "Strengthening the Islands Trust" is founded on a singular pre-determined conclusion and the authors go to great pains to avoid discussion of any alternative perspectives. The subtitle promises "a discussion paper". Normally a discussion paper should identify issues, analyze them as objectively as possible, present and analyze options for dealing with those issues, and possibly present conclusions. Instead, the paper "Strengthening the Islands Trust" is a proposal, supported by a one-sided argument.

Clearly the writers are not happy with trends of development and change, particularly on Saltspring Island. They want more powers for the Trust, more regulation, more restrictions. They believe almost religiously in the model of the Islands Trust, yet they are certain it is failing and will fall apart unless its powers are increased significantly. The writers have well justified concerns about the trends and pressures within the current Islands Trust realm. They extend their concerns about Saltspring to other islands, such as Thetis, without looking at the differences in historical land use and current community plans.

It is fascinating that the 'new and improved' Islands Trust as advocated would resemble a municipality in authority but not in local representation nor efficiency. It would require the already hard-working local trustees to work harder and rely more on staff and on the good graces of other government levels and agencies. Yet the writers are dead opposed to municipal incorporation, the legal instrument designed to provide the most comprehensive management of local issues. They believe that the Islands Trust is the embodiment of perfection as a governance model while admitting that, surprisingly, it has no comparable copies elsewhere. One has to wonder why. Maybe it's because most people elsewhere want more representation when they live in a jurisdiction with more authority over their lives?

The writers happily perpetuate the myth that there must be a choice between the Islands Trust and municipal status. One or the other. This is completely untrue. As on Bowen, the Trust and its land use policies continue to apply if municipal incorporation occurs. A municipality in the Trust area cannot create bylaws or take other actions that conflict with the mandate, policies and bylaws of the Trust. Indeed, this is the great opportunity available to island communities within the Trust area: local administration and governance on details with overriding land use guided by the Trust and the Islands Trust Act.

In "Strengthening the Islands Trust" there is a suggestion that somehow incorporation has been a problem for Bowen Island. From this unsubstantiated supposition, the writers conclude disaster awaits Saltspring or any other island that might incorporate. The more an untruth is repeated, the more likely is it believed. In truth, every place on the planet always struggles with governance issues, and each place has a relatively unique set of issues. The evolution of governance in rural areas is normal, particularly in Canada. Bowen has long been a island suburb of the nearby metropolitan area and must wrestle with that pressure. With its population, so also must come substantial administrative costs and decisions about priorities. Should these costs be born locally or shared with others not enjoying the services or represented by the decision-makers? Ironically, Bowen's move to incorporation and responsible self-administration has probably enabled more Trust resources to be committed to Saltspring which, incidentally, absorbs the lion's share of the Islands Trust resources.

With a strong agricultural history, Saltspring has had a history of settlement, village development and plenty of open spaces suited to more intensive development and sprawl. Its administrative needs and issues are great. Who should be responsible to determine the community's priorities and pay the costs? Other islands, such as Thetis, tend to be more forested and less densely settled and developed, and more reliant on off-island commercial-service centers. On Thetis, it is only the neighbourhoods tightly subdivided prior to the Islands Trust that defy the expected OCP density average. The comparatively small number of possible lots on Thetis, lack of commercial zoning, small and stable population, low density of public roads and so forth mean that, compared to islands like Bowen and Saltspring, local administrative costs and issues are and will remain relatively modest. These long-established land use patterns are unlikely to change, no matter what governance model is applied or whether the Islands Trust is strengthened or not.

There is a fundamental flaw in assuming that a model advocated for Saltspring is appropriate for all other communities. Local details - island-specific characteristics -- are not taken into account. For example, the writers of "Strengthening the Islands Trust" advocate more regulation of tree cutting, as happens in various municipalities. Could it be that municipalities like Oak Bay regulate tree cutting because, relative to pavement and houses, mature trees are inherently endangered by the density of development? It is true enough that parts of Saltspring more closely resemble the suburban and urban landscapes of Oak Bay and Saanich than they do the heavily forested landscapes of other islands. In fact, on much of Thetis Island the second and third growth forest cover is perilously dense and represents an extreme fire risk. There are many times more (though much smaller) trees on Thetis today than contained in the mature douglas fir forest of 150 years ago. Preservation of the rural environment on Thetis might be better achieved by policies that promote reduction of wild fire risk, such as fostering thinning of the forest cover in residential areas and forest stewardship on larger properties. In other words, while perhaps the need for such a tree-cutting bylaw exists on portions of Saltspring, it would silly and wasteful to transpose a solution to a Saltspring problem to communities where there is no such problem. This would be the opposite of "Excellence in Governance", as the Islands Trust is now framing the proposition. All that would be achieved for most taxpayers would be the unnecessary cost burden of bigger government: a bureau of staff to manage the permits for tree cutting and liability for bad decisions resulting in property damage from trees.

Beyond tree management, the advocates of "Strengthening the Islands Trust" envision many things for the Trust and Local Trust Committees, such as:

- resisting the amendment of Official Community Plans over time

- adopting soil removal and deposition bylaws

- enforcing the "spirit" of bylaws beyond the legal wording

- application of ticketing bylaws

- using environmental impact assessments for development projects

- creatively using zoning to manage development

- controlling the appearances of new development

- greater deployment of provincial statutes, regulations and agencies to control development, preserve farmland, control tourism accommodation, etc.

- stronger linkages of with regional district governance.

The call for such measures is a call for a bigger and more controlling local government role for the Islands Trust. This speaks volumes about the evolution of life on Saltspring and probably the other Gulf Islands since the creation of the Islands Trust in the early 1970's. It is a call for the two elected trustees of each island jurisdiction to carry an enormous load of responsibility for many decisions. Perhaps there is need for each community to consider these needs, but they might also consider whether they would like a broader council of elected leaders taking such decisions or leave this tangle to two individuals (plus one from another island), who may or may not be qualified or too easily swayed to one perspective or another. Saltspring Islanders and other island populations should each openly debate governance options that are appropriate responses to their populations and development issues.

Why are the writers of "Strengthening the Islands Trust" opposed to the idea of a locally elected council of several members making local decisions on a comprehensive range of local issues (including transportation, services, infrastructure, etc.)? Why are they opposed to local democracy and yet such strong advocates for the Islands Trust having powers similar to those of incorporated municipalities? While some people suspect that municipal incorporation is an urbanization scheme, in reality the former is only a legal tool to provide comprehensive local government, while the latter is a land use pattern that would, regardless, continue to be controlled under the current authority of the Islands Trust. Incorporation or not, the Islands Trust will continue to oversee land use in each Gulf Island community. Isn't it odd that "self-government" is a celebrated and self-evident cause for First Nations' communities, yet for Gulf Island communities the loudest voices seem to hold a deeply rooted aversion for local self-government?

The Islands Trust was originally conceived as a unique governance model for a number of islands that needed more regulation (to control densification) but which were outside municipal-style governance. Sometime later, the Province created regional districts as the means of addressing rural area governance more universally. Saltspring Island not only dominates the budget and resources of the Islands Trust, but also has the benefit of direct representation on the Capital RD board and has various services as a result. By contrast, Thetis is "represented" by a board director from an adjacent portion of Vancouver Island - one partial representative among many board directors makes for limited persuasiveness. Due to its remoteness and small population, services normally provided by a single local government are here provided by a variety of community organizations, each requiring board directors, insurance and audited financial management.

Beyond regional districts, unlike the period when the Islands Trust was created, the Local Government Act now allows for a special kind of municipality in the Trust area -- called an "island municipality" - subject to the mandate of the Islands Trust. So far, only Bowen has taken this route. There are pluses and minuses, certainly. But at least now on Bowen a full council of locally elected people decides on what variety of services and laws the community needs and can afford, while the Islands Trust continues to provide general land use governance.

The 1970's, when the Islands Trust was created, have come and gone. To grasp resolutely to the governance vision of the '70's, indeed to further entrench and rigidify that vision without careful, objective consideration of other options suggests that such advocates are not really seeing the reality of the current times and the range of needs that Gulf Islands communities have now.  A true rural environment is a working environment where families farm, log, and conduct various enterprises (often with marginal economic success) to survive or, with luck, thrive. They do so in a social context where volunteerism, sharing and mutual support are more valued and necessary to bind a community than regulatory enforcement. Such was the essence of the charm of Saltspring back in the '70's. The current reality is that Saltspring (and other islands) are now dominated by people who either have made their money elsewhere and now have a Thoreau-like retirement dream of a rural paradise --not a working rural environment, but a leisure park - and other folks who see Saltspring as a synonym for investment, development and personal enrichment, or, at least, want their conception of an island paradise protected from the perceived hordes at the gates. The magnetic rural quaintness of the 1970s that attracted the throngs in the 1980s and 1990s has now receded to the more remote valleys and hillsides. For better or worse, Saltspring today is, for the most part, an SUV-bustling urban, suburban and ex-urban community of wealth, comfort and privilege. Ganges is no longer a quirky, sleepy seaside village but a chi-chi, upscale, trendy clamour of competitive consumption. Woebegone farmlands of past decades are now sprawling vineyards and pastures for hobby horse hobnobs and, dotting the hillsides, posh manors now claim the vistas where once wayward walkers might picnic in meadows and on rocky knolls. Back in the hills, the rural do-it-yourselfers and rural survivors still exist but they are the exceptions and they know it; they know it is only a matter of time before the enforcers of neighbourhood conformity knock on their doors.

The governance options need to be fully evaluated and appropriately designed to best meet the challenges of the real Saltspring of today. Similarly, other island communities must examine their needs and their options. It is not a case of "one size fits all" as suggested by the writers of the "Strengthening the Islands Trust" paper. Each island community has its own history, patterns of development and issues to be faced candidly. For some, perhaps the Islands Trust and community-specific OCP and bylaws may be sufficient. For others, perhaps there is a need to add a layer of local government with a full set of municipal powers and capabilities in the context of the Islands Trust providing overarching land use guidance. Local governance is more than regulation of land use: it provides the capacity for local management of a wide range of services. For larger communities, such as Bowen and Saltspring, there are certainly significant administrative costs to local government, but for smaller, less populated places, local government can function as a cohesive entity with great efficiency and minimal additional resources. Indeed, the experience elsewhere shows that small communities, once incorporated, can be quite successful at obtaining otherwise unavailable financial assistance from senior governments (such as the road tax allocation from the federal government).

This paper is not intended as an advocacy for municipal incorporation for Thetis or any other Gulf Island. Rather, it is merely a rebuttal of some of the biased assumptions and conclusions of the "Strengthening the Islands Trust" paper prepared by the "ROOTS" advocacy group of Saltspring Island. Between the status quo and incorporation, there are a number of options for a community such as Thetis. At this point, perhaps a logical role for the Islands Trust might be to provide -- through independent expertise -- credible, factual governance information and options in order that rationale and informed discussion can happen in each community as appropriate. In fact, the Province provides funding for communities to obtain objective analysis of local government needs and costs.

Ken Youds
Thetis Island
April 2007