Viewpoint: Islands Trust – From Conservationists to Density Brokers

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By ALIX HODSON

For evidence that the Islands Trust has abrogated in its mandate to “preserve and protect” the Gulf Islands for all British Columbians, look no further than the recently approved housing development on Gabriola Island.

The rezoning of one of the last areas of Coastal Douglas-fir to allow for 24 apartment units is just the latest in an ongoing trend of deforestation and urbanization. Three years earlier, a huge tract of nearby forestland was sacrificed as the Trust horse-traded 27 new lots for undevelopable riparian marshland elsewhere on the island.

None of this makes sense on a small island with limited capacity and resources, and no community water or sewage systems. Not surprisingly, groundwater contamination is now widespread due to over-development and the proximity of septic to wells.

Over half of the 300 wells on Gabriola are within one square kilometre of the apartment complex site. This part of the island has the greatest water demand due to commercial, industrial and domestic uses. Clearing five more acres of forest within this important water catchment and recharge zone is reckless.

Unlike cities such as Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo, the Gulf Islands cannot tap into distant watersheds. The precipitation that falls on each island is all there is, and as the impacts of climate change intensify, the future becomes more uncertain. Alarmingly, all test wells on the island are showing a persistent drop in water levels.

Proponents of the project argue that more affordable housing is necessary for local employees, but fail to mention the Islands Trust has no means to designate housing for employees only. Anybody in the right income bracket from on or off island can qualify to live in the complex. So what is really being accomplished?

The constant push to provide affordable housing on Gabriola and other islands flies in the face of a 2016 telephone survey proving that the vast majority of islanders want to put the brakes on development while only about 10 per cent are in favour of affordable housing. It also ignores last year’s State of the Island Report showing Mayne, Hornby and Gabriola are already at or near the threshold for ecosystem health.  

If trustees believe they have now solved the housing problem, they are sorely mistaken. The Gulf Islands are surrounded by fast-growing cities with soaring real estate values and limited rental accommodation, and that means the protected area will always be under pressure to provide more housing. It’s never-ending.

The Islands Trust has to make a choice: focus on its original mandate of limiting development and protecting ecosystems, or continue with its current, misguided attempts to juggle environmental, social and economic goals at the same time. We have reached a tipping point where any further development is unsustainable. Islands by nature have limits.  

The writer is a long-time resident of Gabriola Island.

6 Comments
  1. Dr. Thomas Harding says

    Absolutely yes we need affordable housing. But not at the expense of fragile eco-systems. There are other options for affordable housing on Gabriola that are begging to be explored.

    1. Ali says

      Thank you Dr. Hardy for your comment. We do agree on this. Everything has been rushed through with little consideration for the environment or the high-density water-stressed area that has had over 50+ densities created in the past three years. Plus two forested areas down-zoned, side by side, one previously rezoned under protest and the other 80 acres of forestry land horse-traded, rezoned to RR and then subdivided, also under protest. When we are at a threshold environmentally, does this make sense?

  2. Sibyl Frei says

    This article unfairly describes the affordable housing project on Gabriola. The community knew that the local housing society had obtained the land in August 2019, and the rezoning application along with extensive technical studies were submitted to the Islands Trust in January 2020. The Housing Agreement that will be registered on title (like a conservation covenant) will give first priority for renting to people living on Gabriola and Snuneymuxw First Nation members (it is their traditional unceded territory), and second priority to people with ties to Gabriola, before being open to anyone else. While I agree that the horse-trade of riparian area for 27 gated lots for wealthy part-time residents was a significant error by the Islands Trust, providing 24 decent, stable housing units for Gabriola households of people who are unhoused, living in sub-standard housing or using far too much of their income on rent is very much worthwhile to me.

  3. Sibyl Frei says

    I forgot to mention that the survey referenced was completed by fewer than 80 people out of a resident population of over 4,000 and the Islands Trust indicated that the limited data should be considered with caution as a result.

  4. sooz svensson says

    Alix, thank you for the well-written thoughtful article. Our care for this island itself has been overshadowed by social issues that come second. Hard truth for us humans to get over ourselves and out of the way of nature. There are real limits to what this place can do and be.

  5. Ilze says

    To add to the existing pressure there are still 400 housing lots on the island that are yet to be developed. Just think what pressure that will put on island resources.

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