Viewpoint: Lumps of coal and pots of gold

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By FRANTS ATTORP

What’s in a word? A great deal when its interpretation is crucial to land use planning on the Gulf Islands.

The Islands Trust Act and Trust Policy Statement make repeated references to “amenities,” yet nowhere in the documents is the term defined. It is in many ways a mystery word.

“Amenities” is sometimes preceded by “unique,” “natural” or “visual,” and other times by nothing at all. The word lies at the heart of the Trust mandate: “To preserve and protect the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment.”

“Amenities” has a dictionary definition as deep and wide as the Pacific Ocean. Technically, it can refer to everything from a lake to a liquor store. Is it any wonder it has been the topic of intense debate and speculation?

In 2011, a special Trust Council committee tried to pin down its meaning by scouring Trust documents, including court judgments. Their puzzlement is evident in their choice of words: “can be inferred;” “this suggests;” “might be meant;” and “could be considered.”

Despite a recommendation by the committee to “closely review the language of the Policy Statement to ensure that terms used are unambiguous and easily understood, adding definitions if necessary,” no such steps have been taken.

Furthermore, when the Trust recently drafted a long wish list to the provincial government, it did not ask that “amenities” be defined. This suggests the Trust is content with the flexibility afforded by the undefined word.

The implications of the word are apparent in one of the Trust’s major planning tools: amenity zoning. According to the Salt Spring OCP, “amenity zoning is the granting of additional development potential in exchange for the voluntary provision of a community amenity by the land owner.” Using its zoning power, the Trust can turn a lump of coal into a pot of gold.

Included on the list of negotiable amenities is everything from playgrounds and affordable housing, to forested areas, bike paths and above-code “energy-efficient building design criteria.” Specific guidelines for making a deal are provided.

Amenity zoning can be controversial. In the 1990s, it almost triggered a civil war on Gabriola when Weldwood of Canada proposed ceding some 2,000 acres of forest land to the community in exchange for a massive subdivision of 368 lots. Trustees eventually approved the application, but the company, perhaps because of strong public opposition and a brewing legal challenge, decided not to proceed. The land was sold and clearcut, but today has largely regenerated.

Some people object to the Trust horse trading with landowners to secure amenities. They see such deals leading to a gradual urbanization of the islands — high-density residential areas punctuated by pockets of green.

Others believe the benefits to the community are worth the increased density, and that it is best to save what we can now before the islands succumb to relentless people pressure and property speculation.

The extent to which amenity zoning is used will depend largely on trustees’ commitment to protecting the rural character of the islands, and how open they are to alternate, possibly risky, water sources. It will also depend on whether Trust staff actively promote the idea, or present it for what it is — a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

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