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Comment: Different ideas about 'unique amenities' in the Gulf Islands

After 50 years of prioritizing environmental protection, the mandate is now as directionless as a ship without a rudder.
The Salish Sea and the Southern Gulf Islands. TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by a Salt Spring Island resident who has worked for several Gulf Islands ­publications.

A political storm has erupted on the Gulf Islands, seven months after Islands Trust trustees met behind closed doors and reinterpreted “unique amenities” — two key words in their provincial mandate.

The decision has triggered cries of protest, with 34 former trustees adding their voices to a growing chorus of citizens concerned about the future of the Gulf Islands.

Trust Council met in-camera last September to discuss the Islands Trust Act, created by an NDP government in 1974 to protect the Gulf Islands from over-development.

Attention focused on interpretation of the Islands Trust’s mandate: “to preserve and protect the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment,” especially the words “unique amenities.”

In 1986, there was no doubt about their meaning. A Position Paper, endorsed by both Trust Council and the minister of municipal affairs, unequivocally states that “unique amenities” refers to natural features in the environment: “special areas such as the most outstanding beaches, the most significant landscapes” including “open stands of Garry oak, arbutus or Douglas fir, and intertidal and subtidal zones.”

But during the in-camera meeting in September, a totally different interpretation was reached.

An official summary of the meeting claims there was a “consensus” that “unique amenities” are not unique at all: “Trust Council’s view is that unique amenities are broad-ranging and may include issues such as, but not limited to, housing, livelihoods, infrastructure and tourism.”

After 50 years of prioritizing environmental protection, the mandate is now as directionless as a ship without a rudder.

The summary states: “Every decision must include a reasoned recognition of all the elements specified in the mandate.”

But whose reasoning? Since the new interpretation does not specify which elements take precedence, politicians, including those openly hostile to the Trust, get to decide what to prioritize.

Exactly what happened at the meeting remains a mystery as the rules governing in-camera meetings forbid trustees from commenting. And that has become the legal loophole through which all accountability has disappeared.

News of the in-camera meeting prompted many letters to local media and Trust Council. The environmental group Friends of the Gulf Islands Society filed a freedom-of-information request after receiving no response to their inquiries.

In a separate letter to Trust Council this month, 34 former trustees have expressed concern about the lack of transparency and the possibility that the new interpretation, by extending the Trust’s responsibilities to “services provided by regional districts and government agencies,” will “compromise environmental policies” and “facilitate development.”

They are asking for “full disclosure” including “the reasoning used to arrive at this interpretation.”

In an earlier attempt to allay concerns, Bowen Island Trustee Judith Gedye, chair of the Governance Committee, claimed the September meeting was about “the legalities” and “legal interpretation” of the mandate, and insisted “it doesn’t change policy.”

But the summary itself says the “consensus” will be used “to build our strategic direction.” In other words, it will guide the rewrite of the Trust Policy Statement, the master plan governing land use on the Gulf Islands.

If that’s not changing policy, what is?

Adding to the confusion is an admission by Gedye that Trust Council did not even have the 1986 interpretation “as part of our earlier deliberations.”

Why, then, aren’t they revisiting their interpretation in light of the absent Position Paper?

The Governance Committee, which organized the September meeting, was well-versed in the legalities of in-camera procedures. Minutes of their Jan. 19, 2023 meeting state: “By general consent, that Chair Gedye and CAO Hotsenpiller work on the questions to ask regarding a legal opinion on open/closed meetings, workshops and quorum.”

The only consolation is that the new interpretation, unlike the one in 1986, does not bear the signature of the minister of municipal affairs — at least not yet.

But pressure to develop the Gulf Islands is intense, and the fact that Trust Council has purged the mandate of its environmental focus does not bode well for the future of the islands as a protected area.

When everything is prioritized, nothing is a priority.

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