Bowen Islanders reflect on municipal life
The discussion around potential Salt Spring incorporation has prompted people to share their knowledge of what occurred in other jurisdictions in B.C., Canada and the U.S. in the past when voters chose a municipal form of governance.
No examples can provide an apples-to-apples comparison for a number of reasons, the main one being that Salt Spring has evolved under the Islands Trust. The following is a compilation of input received from some active Bowen Island community members.
Peter Frinton was an elected official on Bowen from 1999 to 2011, as both a municipal council member and an islands trustee.
“The advantages of being a municipality are, fairly obviously, having a one-stop-shop and the other being master of your own house,” said Frinton in a recent interview. “And it allows you to do so much, from setting road standards to giving money to community groups.”
“We’ve been able to exercise authority in ways we never had before,” he added. One example is creating a headland authority to deal with derelict vessels in Mannion Bay.
He also feels Bowen has done well in acquiring public amenities over the years, especially through local developer John Reid, who “has always offered more than asked.” Affordable housing is the next amenity area of focus, he said.
Reid has done about a dozen different developments, with preserving green space and linking public lands being hallmarks of his projects. He told the Driftwood his goal is to get more land into public ownership and cluster homes on smaller lots, instead of creating 10-acre parcels that can end up with few trees and owners wanting further subdivision. His latest project would see a 200-acre nature preserve around the island’s major water supply of Grafton Lake.
Bowen Island’s Official Community Plan and the municipality’s 2017 Island Plan are filled with strong environmental language, and Reid’s developments conform to island visions.
The first of 12 Island Plan goals mirrors the Islands Trust object: “To preserve and protect the unique amenities and natural environment of Bowen Island for the benefit of Bowen Island residents and, generally, for residents of British Columbia.”
Sue Ellen Fast was elected as a council member and Islands Trust trustee for the first time in 2014 but also chaired the OCP update steering committee. She agrees that the OCP and municipality’s plan have strong environmental policies but said they have not been embraced through municipal activities.
“How do you do the proactive [environmental] things when it’s not the main thing of a municipality?” she asked. “I’m for nature and the community, but I just don’t see that we’ve done much preserving and protecting.”
As part of the Islands Trust, Bowen Island participates in and helps fund Trust-wide initiatives, such as the Trust Fund Board’s conservation of land through purchase and covenants, or projects like water-resource education for islanders. Bowen was among 11 islands holding Trust-organized groundwater workshops this summer. Two of eight Islands Trust Community Stewardship Award winners were from Bowen Island in 2017.
Doug Hooper was a municipal council member from 2008 to 2011 and also served on the OCP review committee in the early 1990s. He shares Fast’s view about environmental or Islands Trust awareness on Bowen, despite the island’s official participation in the Trust.
“There is very little ethos around preserve and protect on Bowen right now,” he told the Driftwood.
Hooper was never a fan of Bowen becoming a municipality, and believes the process has been expensive. He described the provincial government’s support for post-incorporation road upgrades, similar to what Salt Spring has been offered, as “putting lipstick on a pig.”
Frinton is among those who feels the costs have “not been excessive,” even if the municipality ended up hiring far more staff than its incorporation study predicted and road maintenance costs were also higher.
Murray Skeels is the present mayor of Bowen. In providing asked-for input to the Salt Spring Island Incorporation Study Committee, he said, “In regard to property taxes, before incorporation we were told our roads would either bankrupt us or fall apart. Today our annual taxes are very much in line with other communities our size and every year our roads are better. One big advantage we found to municipal status is that we can set priorities, fund them in our next budget and then get to work. In my opinion there is a tremendous efficiency to be gained by incorporating.”
Hooper also feels Bowen’s “grassroots democracy,” with volunteers stepping up to get things done, has changed as a result of incorporation.
“You shift to a suburb or city perspective that the government is going to be the entity that takes care of things.”
Fast and Skeels disagree that volunteerism has decreased.
“There is still a really high level of volunteerism and community groups and neighbours helping neighbours,” said Fast.
“We still have a tremendous array of clubs, societies and councils,” said Skeels, “but we have incorporated some of the groups, such as the recreation commission, library board and water districts, into our municipal structure,” said Skeels.
Both Hooper and Frinton were not re-elected in 2011 when a pro-development council was elected as a result of heated conflict about whether or not a national park reserve should be established on the island. Frinton noted, however, that the 2011-2014 council was so dysfunctional that nothing got done. The mayor during that period, who died in 2014, is the one who has been quoted as questioning why Bowen was still in the Islands Trust.
Hooper feels things were “pretty topsy-turvy” on council and in the community for the first 15 years, but said the current council is balanced and functions well.
For more information about Bowen Island Municipality, see www.bimbc.ca.