LTC approves Vortex permit with conditions

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The Vortex project at the head of Fulford Harbour received development permit (DP) approval from the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee (LTC) on Aug. 9, despite a number of public pleas for the Trust to halt the project due to environmental concerns.

In opening the elected officials’ discussion about the controversial development, trustee Laura Patrick made it clear that refusing a permit was not in the cards from a legislative standpoint.

“Development permits are such that the conditions of a development permit will not prevent a property from being used as the local zoning bylaw allows, so those are the little boxes that we’re in.” She said that despite people’s desire to “erase all this and go back to some other time . . . we have to start with the rules that we have, which is the zoning that’s in place.”

The property consists of two titles totalling two hectares (five acres) in size. The former Fulford Inn site is zoned Commercial Accommodation (CA) 2 and the adjacent parcel is split zoned CA 2(b) and Rural. The lands were purchased in early 2018 by Merchant House Capital, whose CEO David Fullbrook lives in the south end of Salt Spring. The proposal is for 17 units of tourist accommodation, a restaurant, three accessory spaces and an outdoor plaza.

One of the main points of contention was eliminated the day before the meeting when Trust staff accepted a septic system location move to outside of the 30-metre setback area. That meant the LTC had only to consider a couple of lot line setbacks in issuing the development variance permit.

As for the overall development permit, which covers issues ranging from building form and character to landscaping and septic and stormwater management, the plan was given LTC approval with conditions after a number of permit amendments. One of those specified the need for “a metering and monitoring plan that enables ongoing evaluation of the sewage disposal system performance and receiving environment condition.” Another requires “confirmation from a qualified hydrogeologist that upon [sewage disposal] system operation, including any relief and interception drainage, pre- and post-development groundwater flows to Fulford and Soule Creeks will remain constant.”

In introducing the project at the Aug. 9 meeting, Trust planner Jason Youmans said the proposal was generally consistent with land use bylaws and development permit area guidelines, but that staff still wanted a comprehensive groundwater study to be done.

“Where staff continue to hang our hat is on this issue of whether or not sufficient study has been done of the potential polluting impacts of development on the site, particularly as it relates to the septic field and its impact on groundwater hydrology, and ultimately on the nearby streams as well,” he said.

But Fullbrook pointed out that to get the kind of meaningful data envisioned by Trust staff through such a study could take up to three years.

“You’re talking about a really significant scientific undertaking that because of the data sets that are required would take an extensive amount of time, far beyond what any development permit would ever typically require.”

Permit amendments related to sewage disposal system monitoring were meant to address the concerns about potential pollution.

The amended permit also includes a clause recognizing “the proponent’s commitment to maintaining an ongoing working relationship with the Tsawout First Nation in regard to further development-related approvals, design, construction and operation.”

Fullbrook reported on First Nations engagement to date. While other nations were consulted, he explained that Fulford Harbour is acknowledged as being traditional Tsawout First Nation territory and a working relationship has been developed with the Tsawout.

“Through critical review we have determined that the proponent meets and exceeds the environmental standards for the project,” states a July 27 letter to the Trust from Tsawout First Nation lands manager Casey Dick-Wyatt providing conditional approval. “The proponent has satisfied our initial request to have our cultural monitors present for archeological work within the project area, and we no longer have concerns of the project’s impact to archeological sites and local water ways.”

The Salt Spring Island Advisory Planning Commission also recommended DP approval.

Seventeen members of the public spoke against the project in the delegations and town hall portions of the meeting. Some suggested the proponent undertake a smaller development on the upper part of the property and restore the lower seaside lot as much as possible.

“I propose that the LTC engage with the developer in pursuing a vision that is more in keeping with the official community plan and the tenets of the [Islands Trust’s] declared climate emergency,” said area resident John FitzGibbon.

Many described visions of restoration of Fulford and Soule creeks and the estuary. Retired professional biologist Anne Parkinson said the estuary was currently “bone dead,” which was “the result of decades of illegal dumping of fill, followed by building a very tight short bridge.”

She explained how replacing the bridge with a longer one that would restore the natural flow of watercourses was key to rehabilitation.

“The estuary in the marine environment would thrive,” she said.

Following the LTC’s permit approval decision, Parkinson told the Driftwood, “It is difficult to comprehend why a motel on stilts in a flood zone with no community access or water is given a permit, with variances, to further compound historic damages to the Fulford estuary. How does the profit of a few take precedence over the life of salmon, eelgrass meadows and the health of the bay without proper study?”

The project still needs a building permit from the Capital Regional District (CRD), water supply approval envisioned through expansion of the CRD Fulford Water Service Area and further work with First Nations.

According to permit terms, construction will need to begin within three years.

In speaking to the Driftwood later in the week, Fullbrook thanked Trust staff and trustees for their hard work on the file, even though he said it was “a very frustrating and painful exercise.”

He also elaborated on visions for Tsawout involvement in the project, including possible plans for eco-tourism activities.

“For the Tsawout it’s really about establishing their presence and their legacy within the harbour, and how that is going to occur is really the conversation we are interested to have.”

He also said he hopes that the general public conversation about the Vortex will now “change a little bit towards less acrimony and divisiveness and more about how can we work together and really create meaningful stewardship for Fulford Harbour.”

He said he spoke to some of the project opponents at the LTC meeting and said, “We have an interest in the kinds of things that you’re interested in. And there’s an opportunity here to do something that is, I think, an example of thoughtful, balanced development.”

The LTC also wants to see more collaboration. Another clause added to the DP “encourages the proponent to consider establishing a local advisory group to provide local knowledge on environmental issues related to the design, construction and operation of the project.”

An audio recording of the Aug. 9 meeting will be available through the Salt Spring page of the Islands Trust website.

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