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Comment: Salt Spring housing policies bode ill for the future

An aerial view of Salt Spring Island. Loosening restrictions on housing on the island's limited land will result in a development free-for-all, Frants Attorp writes. TOURISM B.C.

A commentary by a Salt Spring Island resident who has written for several Gulf Islands newspapers.

Compassion. It’s part of being human, and, like most every­thing else in the animal kingdom, a function of evolution. Why will most people risk their own lives to save another of their kind, but have no compunction about setting a mouse trap or serving chicken for dinner? Think Darwin.

Compassion is clearly a loaded term that goes to the heart of who we are. How sad to see that the word is now being politicized in the housing debate on Salt Spring Island.

Playing the compassion card shuts down discussion by signalling “if you don’t agree with me, you must be heartless.”

Nobody can dispute Salt Spring needs more affordable housing, especially for essential workers. A great many residents would have to leave the island if existing essential services suddenly disappeared.

But that doesn’t release trustees from the “preserve and protect” mandate in the Islands Trust Act — passed in 1974 by the B.C. legislature after an all-party committee found that the Gulf Islands were vulnerable to damage because of their proximity to major urban centres.

On Nov. 9, in response to recommendations from a housing task force, trustees passed a resolution to defer enforcement of all illegal dwellings on Salt Spring (unless there are specific health, safety or environmental ­concerns), and to pursue a bylaw allowing secondary suites and other auxiliary dwellings in all zones.

There was no detailed discussion about downsides such as possible water shortages and groundwater contamination, or increased pressure on stressed ecosystems.

Suspending enforcement basically extends a policy that has been in place since 2017, where action is taken only if there is more than one illegal dwelling per lot. Now a blind eye will be turned to practically all illegal dwellings.

What other jurisdiction has stopped enforcing its most important bylaws?

While the plight of home-insecure people is a burning issue, the long-term implications of deregulation are disastrous, especially for a protected area with limited resources and services. Why do landowners rent out illegal dwellings in the first place? Is it because they are compassionate or want to make a buck?

Trustee Laura Patrick stated the no-enforcement policy will stay in effect “until there are safe, secure, appropriate housing options that are affordable for all demographics and households in perpetuity,” and indicated she wants a permanent fix, not just one that lasts “for a little bit.”

Has she forgotten that real estate prices are sky-high and almost all of British Columbia’s population lives at our doorstep? The demand for affordable housing is insatiable.

The plan to allow auxiliary dwellings in all zones is troubling, especially when combined with the no-enforcement resolution. Salt Spring already has a large number of people living in recreation vehicles and substandard structures. The resolution will promote more of this by sending the message that anything goes on the Gulf Islands.

Trustees are assailing the very foundation of our community plan and squandering the island’s most precious asset, namely space. Those who have no concept of rural character should not be put in charge of protecting it.

At the heart of the housing debate is the question of whether or not there can be full-scale social justice in a protected area. Housing advocates say yes, but their plans, which include the creation of villages in rural areas, would involve a new wave of development with no strategy for limiting growth.

A more reasonable approach would see trustees focus on subsidized housing and legislative tools to maximize the use of existing housing stock. Consistently putting human needs above environmental protection is contrary to basic principles of conservation and sustainability.

Housing advocates were thrilled with the Trust Committee’s decisions. They applauded the end of enforcement and density restrictions, and celebrated as the island’s 17,000 population cap was brushed aside.

Driven by compassion, they offered encouragement as pillars of the Trust’s regulatory apparatus came tumbling down. Will the milk of human kindness prove fatal to the Gulf Islands?