By FRANTS ATTORP
The Vortex proposal is back before the Islands Trust with a staff report that emphasizes environmental protection. This will be the last chance to restore the estuary before it becomes a major tourist resort.
In December 2019, the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee granted a septic variance permit for 17 motel units, a restaurant and related facilities against the advice of Trust staff who expressed concerns about projected flooding, a potentially tidal-dominated groundwater table and possible damage to the marine environment.
That permit expired last month as the authorized work was not substantially started within two years. A new variance permit application, with related development permit application, will be considered by the LTC at its next meeting on Feb. 15.
Staff have expressed many of the same environmental concerns as previously and still recommend against reduced setbacks from water bodies: “At many other locations of the island the reports received to date would likely be deemed satisfactory. However, because of the unique attributes of the subject site, staff are inclined to exercise an abundance of caution.”
Due to flood risk, the applicant now proposes to build the motel units on pilings. Additionally, there are alternate septic plans that respect the 30-metre setback if the septic variance is denied. But staff warn that relocating the sewage disposal field may impact archaeological values.
Staff reiterate the need for hydrology and biology studies to ensure “no detrimental impacts on the estuary and harbour,” and “continue to have questions about whether the reports furnished to date by the applicant are sufficient to conclude that guidelines are met.”
But the guidelines themselves may be inadequate: “Staff find that existing development permit area guidelines do not appear to sufficiently address cumulative impacts of new developments,”and indicate the septic consultant’s report “does not address any potential cumulative impacts on the marine environment measured over years or decades”. Similarly, “current zoning, siting regulations and policies on Salt Spring Island may not adequately capture climate change related risks.”
Additionally, the site is at risk of liquefaction from seismic activity. Mitigation measures, such as creating “a stable rock mat” for buildings, would involve “significant land alteration within a recorded archaeological site,” an issue considered outside Islands Trust purview. The applicant has declined staff’s request to wait until he has a site alteration permit from the Archaeological Branch.
Staff have provided various options, such as referring the application to the Advisory Planning Commission and First Nations, but only one stands out: downzoning the property to alter its development potential. “The LTC is under no obligation to issue the requested development variance permit. Rather, the LTC must simply be able to demonstrate it made a reasonable decision and was responsive to the issues raised.” But this could cause “considerable concern from the applicant.”
Given the tremendous value of the estuary in terms of ecology and Indigenous cultural heritage, and the many risks associated with the development proposal, trustees must seek the least damaging option. It’s time to put the environment first.