When climate and housing crises intersect, how should local government respond?
Two years ago, a group of volunteers were handed the task: advise the Salt Spring Island Local Trust Committee (LTC) how to craft a balance between housing a diverse and healthy population on Salt Spring, while reducing — or, at a minimum, not increasing — that population’s impact on the environment. And on Sept. 6, the island’s Housing Action Program Task Force chair presented trustees with its latest report, consisting of several recommendations that have emerged from hundreds of hours of research, discussion and public engagement.
And, as expected, the process is far from complete.
“We’ve finished a summary report of the various ideas we’ve discussed to date,” said task force chair Rhonan Heitzmann, speaking on behalf of the group, and reiterating the recommendations were meant to “improve housing options and diversity in a way that reduces the net environmental impact per capita of our settlement patterns, while maintaining a diverse and healthy community.”
Some of the recommendations were familiar, having garnered much recent attention — the progression of a bylaw to permit accessory dwelling units stemmed in part from the task force’s urging, and there are few on Salt Spring without opinions regarding regulation of vacation rentals, or tiny homes.
Others appealed to public policy wonks — the task force’s recommendations to the LTC naturally focus on land use planning — urging action on sustainability and affordability.
But to some extent or another, they were mostly tackling the issue of density: how planners might affect the number of developed units in a given area of land.
“We have to change the way we live as a community,” said Heitzmann. “The status quo of large single-family dwellings on large lots is clearly non-sustainable, socially or environmentally.”
The task force recommended encouraging walkable village centres by allowing multiple stories of residential units above downtown businesses, to focus density there. And several ideas approached density from transactional angles — exchanging allowances on a new home’s total floor area for putting conservation covenants on part of the homeowner’s property, perhaps allowing additional dwelling spaces on a property if the owner builds to a higher standard of ecological efficiency — or updating the transfer mechanism, where developers “trade” density from large, landlocked and undeveloped areas for additional allowances on another property closer to existing infrastructure, to include considerations like forest preservation.
On an island renown for robust public discourse, it’s little surprise that community engagement has been equally vigorous; between speakers at in-person hearings and thick stacks of letters and emails, input from islanders has not been in shortage. But task force members have been disheartened, according to Heitzmann, by the negative perception many in the public have about their goals, in part, he said, because official communication with the public hasn’t been effective.
“There’s much work to do still, but information and communication is an important part,” said Heitzmann. “One of the main points that we have highlighted is that need for better communication, education and collaboration.”
Recent public discourse, said Heizmann, has been rife with misunderstanding, false assumptions and incomplete appreciations of differing points of view and intentions.
“We can do better,” he said, pointing to recent engagement with First Nations as an example. Heitzmann read from a June 10 letter from Lyackson First Nations expressing concerns about the housing task force’s work — a letter he said was never shared with the task force.
“They are part of our community. We must do a better job engaging with them so that we can find solutions together,” said Heitzmann. “We at the task force want to take into account their views and address their needs, but we can’t do that if we’re left in the dark.”
In addition to the report’s suggestions that the collaborative process strive to be more broadly inclusive, urging establishment of an interagency housing authority where Indigenous, provincial, territorial and local governments (e.g., CRD, water districts) could collaborate, Heitzmann recommended that when everyone reconvened in the next term, First Nations should be specifically invited to “meaningfully engage” in the process. He also suggested the invitation might be extended even sooner in preparation for discussions.
The Housing Action Program Task Force report can be read online.