Dock ban order surprises Islanders

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A ministerial order that prohibits any new applications for private docks in the Southern Gulf Islands area and the southeast shoreline of Vancouver Island for the next two years came as a near universal surprise when it was posted last week, with no advance notice given to people working in the marine construction industry or in local government.

Peter Grove, a Salt Spring trustee with the Islands Trust, described the order from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) as coming “completely out of the blue.” He first learned about it from Lasqueti Island trustee Tim Peterson, who forwarded the news to his colleagues. Those who attended an Islands Trust programs committee meeting on Friday were still trying to find out why the order was made. 

Committee members were particularly surprised because of the work they are doing to update the Islands Trust Policy Statement. A draft amendment to the document had proposed changing shoreline zoning across the Trust Area to prohibit most new private docks.

“I think this speaks poorly to the ministry’s communication with the Islands Trust on this topic, and it seems like a bit of a blindside to drop this, at least without letting the Trust know,” North Pender trustee Ben McConchie stated at Friday’s meeting. 

Corey Johnson, construction manager at Island Marine Construction, said private industry was also surprised, even though they are in regular contact with FLNRORD.

“We don’t know where the idea came from. We’re not sure how this map applies jurisdictionally. It doesn’t align with the entire Trust Area; it doesn’t match the general permissions area [for private docks], so we don’t know exactly where this is coming from,” Johnson said. “We do know they have a huge backlog of applications, and this could just be a way to get on top of those before taking on more, but the reasons they gave are a little suspect to us as well.”

Area where new applications for private moorage are prohibited until Aug. 23, 2023, surrounded by dotted blue line.

According to FLNRORD’s rationale for the closure, private docks can cause a number of social and environmental harms. These include restricted access to foreshore and marine areas; increased turbidity from dock construction and increased boat traffic; increased contamination from dock materials such as treated timber and corrosion; increased shading to fish and fish habitat; and direct disturbance to marine resources such as kelp, eelgrass and clam beds.

“The cumulative impact of the proliferation of private moorage docks on southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands has not been adequately characterized or measured. This has led to multi-year delays to decisions on private moorage applications,” FLNRORD states in the rationale to the order. 

It says the two-year prohibition will provide time to assess the cumulative effect, “providing a pathway to decisions on private moorage applications currently in inventory and on new applications that may be accepted at the conclusion of the prohibition.”

Existing docks and previously approved proposals are not threatened by the order or by any future Islands Trust policy change. Johnson said his firm has many projects on the go with moorage applications already approved or in process, although what happens after the two-year prohibition period is a concern. 

He questions the statements made by the ministry about harms associated with docks. In terms of access to the shoreline, he said all docks are required to be two metres above the high water mark so anyone can walk underneath, and access between land and water clearly increases with moorage infrastructure. As well, he said modern dock construction favours steel pilings over creosote-treated wood and decking material is often light-permeable. He added land-use bylaws on Salt Spring, at least, already prohibit dock construction over eelgrass beds, clam beds and other sensitive areas. 

Johnson said the timing of the order is interesting given the Trust’s proposed policy change. While the two initiatives may be unrelated, the provincial ban could make it easier for the Trust to justify pursuing its own prohibition.

That would have negative  impacts beyond threatening the marine construction business, he said. 

“Access to the water is an important part of our community and island living,” Johnson said, adding safety is another paramount concern. 

Islands Trust Council chair Peter Luckham told the programs committee the timing of the ministerial order appeared to be completely coincidental.

“To start with, this is not our ministry that has made this order. We report to a different ministry,” Luckham said, referencing Municipal Affairs and Housing. 

“It is disappointing they didn’t choose to consult with us on this matter,” he added. “But clearly they chose to keep their cards close to their chest.”

Luckham suggested the order is also not surprising in some ways. FLNRORD made changes in January 2017 to streamline the process for residential marine docks across most areas of B.C. The order meant landowners would no longer need to apply for a foreshore lease to use Crown land if their projects met certain conditions such as size limits, environmental specifications and local government zoning or bylaws. The “general permissions” process was not applied in the waters around the Southern Gulf Islands.

Luckham suggested the two-year prohibition could be the next step in a larger overhaul to the provincial program.

“This is not an end to docks. It’s a pause to consider the environmental impacts and a different permitting process,” he said. 

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