Vortex proposal put in pause mode by local Trust committee
The developer behind plans to revamp the site of the former Fulford Inn will have to wait as the Islands Trust asks First Nations for feedback on variance and development permits they are considering.
The Salt Spring Island Local Trust Committee (LTC) was meant to decide Feb. 15 on whether a development could go ahead on the site at 2621 and 2661 Fulford-Ganges Rd. The LTC chose to halt the process before issuing any variance or development permits, asking first for early stage feedback from Tsawout First Nation and the Cowichan Tribes, who both expressed interest in the application.
The Vortex is being developed by David Fullbrook, CEO of Merchant House Capital and a Salt Spring resident, who has plans to build 17 commercial accommodation units as well as a restaurant and plaza. It is partially a brownfield site that has stood empty since the inn was demolished in 2015, and is zoned to allow commercial accommodation. The site is also an ecologically sensitive area bordered by Fulford Creek, Fulford Harbour and Soule Creek and is specifically referenced in the island’s official community plan as a place where the LTC “should not support any development that could have a net negative impact on the marine environment” of the estuary and harbour.
To proceed, Fullbrook needs development variance permits for three aspects of the plan, most notably the request to put a sewage disposal field up to 10 metres from Soule Creek and up to 26 metres from Fulford Harbour.
“Ordinarily, the land use bylaw requires a setback of 30 metres from the natural boundary of all water bodies,” planner Jason Youmans explained.
The two other variances sought are an underground septic system 1.5 metres from the front lot line along Fulford-Ganges Road. Normally the distance would have to be 7.5 metres, as well as locating buildings closer to the two lot boundaries that the development spans.
The LTC has already granted these variances, including allowing the sewage field closer to Soule Creek and the harbour, yet as building did not commence on the site these permits from 2019 expired and Fullbrook had to re-apply.
The idea, Fullbrook explained, was to repurpose and reuse the site where the septic field from the former inn was. The other option would be to move it to a location which was previously undisturbed, potentially needing land works that might have archaeological implications and requiring a site redesign.
Ian Ralston with TRAX Developments Ltd., who designed the septic system, said moving it wouldn’t change much in terms of risk. The contaminants that people worry most about with sewage systems, the nitrogen species, are quite mobile once they reach shallow groundwater, he told the meeting.
“I can confidently state that the system is designed to the highest levels of risk management,” Ralston said, adding that the design concept was peer reviewed by a prominent B.C. hydrogeologist.
In response to trustee Peter Grove, Ralston explained what might happen to the system in the case of climate change-induced sea level rise or flooding. While a small amount of water might be seen in the septic field area, Ralston said, the system includes continuous monitoring of “vertical separation,” meaning the depth from the dispersal bed to the water table below, and an automatic stoppage of discharge and alarms sounding when this separation reaches certain levels.
Islands Trust staff made the same recommendations as in 2019, Youmans said. They had no concerns with the other variances sought, yet were not in support of allowing the sewage disposal field located close to the water bodies as the 30-metre setback in the land use bylaw is meant to protect water quality.
The LTC voted on Feb. 15 to refer the variance and development permit to First Nations with treaty and territorial interests on the island, with a request to comment.
Trustee Grove noted his support of the development, provided concerns about septic are addressed.
“But we have got a game changer. We have a First Nations request for consultation before we go any further,” he said.
Trustee Laura Patrick noted that the plan “works for me” yet the voices of First Nations are missing and it is important to ensure the development works for them.
Youmans said the Islands Trust was contacted by chief Harvey Underwood of the Tsawout First Nation, who have a reserve at Fulford Harbour and “strong treaty and territorial interests” in the area. They, as well as the Cowichan Tribes, are interested in commenting on the development. While it isn’t standard practice to refer variance permits to First Nations, Youmans said it is within the LTC’s power to do so.
“The Tsawout are looking for a physical representation of their ancestral land claims in Fulford Harbour,” said Fullbrook.
While in support of First Nations engagement, Fullbrook cautioned it may be difficult to get Tsawout to make this a priority given other things the nation is working on.
Tsawout have previously indicated their general support of Fullbrook’s plans, yet leadership at the chief and council level has changed since a July 2021 election.
Nine speakers addressed trustees Feb. 15, with seven against, one in support and one providing information. Those opposed cited environmental concerns, including the potential for septic facilities to contaminate the harbour, the risks of climate change-induced extreme weather and sea level rise and the critical environment the creeks and harbour provide to fish, mussel and other species in decline or at risk of extinction. Fulford Creek is one of 15 sensitive streams listed in the province’s Water Sustainability Act.
“I share those concerns. In fact, it’s those concerns that drove me to take action, to acquire the property,” Fullbrook said.
Consultants presenting with Fullbrook at the Feb. 15 meeting outlined plans to replant the site with native species as well as fence off parts of Soule Creek, and once the project gets to the detailed design stage an environmental protection plan will be developed. The plan will include “erosion sediment control, spill prevention, nesting birds surveys, environmental monitoring, etc.,” said Lehna Malmkvist from Swell Environmental Consulting.
Speaking in favour of the development, David Rumsey said the Vortex would bring back a community gathering space lost when the inn closed. It would also allow family and friends to stay locally when visiting, and reduce the demand for illegal suites such as Airbnbs, which could instead be used for long-term housing. Ryder Bergerud argued that the development, being marketed as “a luxury place,” is actually incompatible with affordable housing as it would drive up real estate prices.
LTC chair Peter Luckham said Fullbrook faced an “uphill climb” due to the need to get public confidence behind the project. Fullbrook took issue with the characterization of public opinion being against the Vortex. Despite vilification online and someone damaging his property, Fullbrook said, he has actively avoided drumming up support for the project and asking supporters to take sides.
“I’m not in a position to engage in an ongoing community debate and increase what is already a very divisive social environment on Salt Spring Island.”
Luckham said that he needed further assurances that the material submitted by the applicant “is as it appears to be,” and suggested a developer-funded formal peer review process.
Fullbrook noted that third party experts and analysts come at the detailed design stage and their information is reviewed at the building permit stage by other levels of government.
“You must let your processes that you’ve established, under which we made our application . . . play forward,” he said. “You can’t continue to change the rules as the game goes on.”