As some islanders clamour to legalize one kind of lower-cost housing despite environmental concerns, others are seeking more regulation for a different kind of housing — at least partly in the name of the natural environment.
Proponents of these issues — plus a third contingent, who were dead-set against yet another cannabis business in Ganges — made for a standing-room-only crowd at Salt Spring’s Local Trust Committee (LTC) meeting Thursday, June 22. The often-quiet public comment portion of the meeting was anything but, with more than 75 people filling the small space, and dozens ready to voice their opinions.
They spoke mostly in support of Bylaw 530 — the LTC initiative to permit small accessory dwelling units on many island properties — and of a citizen-drafted bylaw proposal, now called Clean and Safe Harbours Initiative (CASHI), which seeks to regulate liveaboards in Ganges and other harbours.
Multiple islanders who self-identified as Salt Spring’s “working class” pleaded with trustees to advance Bylaw 530, citing the lack of affordable housing and its follow-on effect upon the workforce. Recently, several high-profile community businesses and service providers have reduced their hours, or taken extraordinary steps to attract and retain employees as housing costs have risen; some larger employers have either purchased housing to rent to their staff, or have made deals with landlords to provide regular tenants.
For smaller businesses, those arrangements simply aren’t financially viable, and lower-wage workers need to find their own way. Many seemingly live in “illegal” suites and cottages that Bylaw 530 would legalize — and despite environmental concerns, most recently expressed by Tsawout First Nation representatives in their opposition to the bylaw, the need for housing stirred deep emotions.
“I don’t know if any of you that are standing against this can look at some of the people that are working on this island, look them in the eye and say ‘there’s no place here for you,’” said Dan O’Donnell. “I find it shameful.”
While acknowledging the broader housing crisis, Tsawout First Nation had said it believed Bylaw 530 would significantly change the “environmental trajectory” of Salt Spring Island by pushing the living capacity past the standards originally outlined in the island’s official community plan.
Similarly — and also while insisting the goal was not to minimize Salt Spring’s affordable housing crisis — proponents of new regulations for liveaboards in Ganges insist the environmental damage from unregulated housing on the water has reached a tipping point.
“The Trust has the responsibility to protect and preserve our unique amenities and environment,” said Glenn Stevens, who has spearheaded the CASHI effort and officially presented the citizen-written bylaw proposal. “And, sad to say, that has not occurred.”
Liveaboards, like many cottages and suites on land, are also currently illegal under Islands Trust land use rules — although as with on-land illegal housing, enforcement is rare. The CASHI proposal as-written would legalize liveaboards, while requiring boats in Ganges Harbour to — among other things — hold liability and indemnity insurance, be able to move under their own power, and dispose of waste in compliance with Transport Canada’s Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemical Regulations.
That last, notably, treats waste from composting toilets the same as that from standard vessel holding tanks, in that both liquids and solids must be transported to shore and properly disposed of — another difficult ask even from those trying to “do it right,” according to one harbour resident. Many vessels and houseboats are unpowered and, being on moorings, expensive to insure. As well, the $10 “blackwater” pump-out station at Centennial Dock is closed through the winter, and was recently unavailable due to repairs.
“All of us that live on the water care about the environment we live in. None of us want to make things worse,” said harbour resident Luna Owl. “But there are no good options for us.”
Owl has lived on boats for more than 15 years, the last eight in Ganges Harbour — and like many in the liveaboard community has worked in town serving in bars, coffee shops and restaurants, currently working in the kitchen at the hospital. People on the water feel regular pressure “every few years” to move along from their affordable solution, according to Owl — and while it’s not clear what traction CASHI’s current effort has with the LTC, the damage may already have been done.
“Whether or not they manage to drive these issues through, every time that they push these agendas, people get scared — and people move off the water,” said Owl. “And most people aren’t moving off to [more expensive accommodations] on Salt Spring — they’re moving away.”
At the LTC meeting, there was some effort at middle ground for the sake of the workforce; some speakers wanted the LTC to find a way to ensure a clean harbour without regulations that might “price-out” the current population. Trustees asked staff to review the initiative and report back at a future meeting, not expressly asking for a legal opinion but rather to determine whether getting one was appropriate. But, according to Islands Trust staff at the meeting, there is a relevant legal review currently taking place.
“That’s already in process,” said bylaw enforcement officer Warren Dingman. “We’re getting a legal opinion on all these marine issues.”
Trustees also directed staff to approach the Capital Regional District (CRD) to see about including Salt Spring Island in the new Saanich Peninsula Waterways Environmental Action Service, established through a 2021 bylaw to provide a forum for First Nations, community groups and government partners to collaborate about the environmental risks associated with near-shore waters — including contaminant runoff, bilge discharges from boats, habitat alteration and illegal dumping.
That service does not have regulatory authority, according to the CRD, instead focusing on outreach and engagement.
As for Bylaw 530, trustees directed staff to craft yet more communication material, outlining the substantial complexity and cost involved in new builds under the proposal — and highlighting their hope that the greatest effect will be felt by existing renters in non-conforming housing as they gain the protection of becoming legal tenants. It next heads to a public hearing — in September, rather than this summer, as trustees seek to more meaningfully engage with the Tsawout First Nation on the matter. For now, the housing future for many, on land or on water, will remain uncertain.
As for the new cannabis operation’s retail licence, that application was declined due to it being an unsuitable location.
The LTC will hold its next meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 12, at the Legion’s Meaden Hall. This meeting is a town hall only, to offer the public an evening opportunity to raise issues with trustees.