By FRANTS ATTORP
Salt Spring Island is part of a protected area that was established in 1974 “to control unbridled development and to preserve and protect the islands.” Today, almost half a century later, the Islands Trust has managed to stop large-scale subdivisions but has been unable to curb unregulated development.
Nobody knows for sure how many illegal dwellings — some unfit for human habitation — there are on the island, but the Trust has indicated the numbers are significant and that most offenders are “flying under the radar.” The situation has been complicated by the housing crisis and the Trust’s understandable reluctance to evict tenants.
While the Trust has statistics on bylaw enforcement, those numbers reflect only complaints received. At the end of last year, there were 39 open files for unlawful dwellings, a number that would undoubtedly be in the hundreds with more aggressive enforcement.
The situation is not helped by the Trust’s current strategy of leniency. Standing resolution SS-2017-168 directs bylaw enforcement officers to take action only “where there is more than one unlawful dwelling on a lot.” Additionally, proposed Bylaw 471 would, through temporary use permits, give legal status to all manner of unlawful dwellings, including trailers, tiny homes and other wheeled residences. These steps send the message that anything goes; they undermine existing legislation and encourage more violations.
In the long term, continued recalcitrance will have a ruinous effect on the fragile environment and rural character of the island. Individually, infractions may seem insignificant, but collectively, they constitute a major assault on our official community plan. Only compliance can keep our population from surpassing the 17,000 projected under current zoning.
Following is a suggested long-term strategy to bring the situation under control without evicting anyone:
Declare an amnesty period during which all illegal dwellings on the island must be registered in an Islands Trust database. Registration must include a complete list of current tenants along with contact information. No fines would be levied at this point. However, any property owner who does not register an illegal dwelling would be subject to a significant fine.
When the current occupants of the illegal dwelling move on, the Islands Trust must be notified, and the illegal dwelling shuttered if it cannot be made to conform under existing bylaws.
Any landowner who allows a new tenant to move into an illegal dwelling will be subject to a substantial fine. Again, nobody would be evicted, but the property owner would be held accountable.
If adopted, this strategy should lead to increased compliance over time. The do-as-I-please culture would fade as people realize illegal dwellings cannot be used to generate extra income.
Of course the Trust must continue to create more housing for those in need, especially local employees. There will still be development, but with a notable difference: the Trust, not the bylaw breakers, would be driving the bus.
It is sad that protection of this island requires a penalty system, but relying on voluntary compliance clearly hasn’t worked. We all have to support the Trust and the vision it represents, and the best way to do that is to respect the bylaws it has passed.