Viewpoint: The growth conundrum

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By Frants Attorp

When the family heirlooms are put up for auction, it’s usually a sign of desperation. But here on Salt Spring, the sale of our collective treasures is being touted as “a creative solution.”

There are numerous proposals being presented by housing advocates to address the housing crisis. Some, including projects already underway, make perfect sense and deserve our full support, while others have a huge downside that threatens the rural fabric of this island.

Particularly troublesome are proposals involving density increases on large holdings to allow for “eco-villages” and conservation initiatives. While the intent is noble, offering “financial incentives” (i.e. higher densities) in exchange for amenities may prompt more landowners to cash in on the lucrative real estate market.

There’s also the possibility that private citizens, representing special interest groups, will start scouting out properties for their pet projects, and may even approach landowners to see what kind of “deal” can be reached. How many eco-villages can we look forward to — five, 15 or 50?

As demonstrated by recent logging on the island, the Trust needs better tools to govern activities on private land. But we should think carefully before we start trading densities for green space. There are hundreds of acreages on the island that could be classified as ecologically sensitive, and the aggressive promotion of amenity zoning could trigger a new subdivision trend.

If the Trust implements the land acquisition strategies now on the table, it will be an admission that it has failed as a regulatory agency to control growth. Securing pockets of green space while letting the rest go to development is an urban concept that is contrary to the “preserve and protect” mandate.

It is important to note the process by which we arrived at this point. Amazingly, we had an election where not a single candidate ran on an environment-first platform. The focus was almost entirely on housing, with little discussion of the prime role of the Islands Trust which, in its own words, is “to control unbridled development and to preserve and protect the islands.”

The “solutions” now being presented to the community are neither modest nor limited in scope; they are broad and sweeping and involve a total remake of the island. Somehow, a major, new template for the future has piggybacked on the housing issue, all without full and proper discussion.

It behooves the Trust to clearly identify “the limits of our environment to absorb continued development,” and to ensure the housing situation is addressed within the context of the Islands Trust Policy Statement and our official community plan. While some of the terms in the documents are undefined and open to interpretation, the spirit and intent are crystal clear: environmental protection trumps everything.

Current zoning already guarantees a population of at least 17,000, 40 per cent more than today’s 12,000. Given the push for higher densities, that number will have to be revised significantly upwards. The island is clearly entering a new era of growth and deal making that has put our rural landscape up for grabs.

The writer is a Salt Spring Island resident.

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