BY MAXINE LEICHTER
Rural sprawl in the Gulf Islands is being wrongly used to justify higher densities.
There is no universally accepted definition, but rural sprawl usually refers to houses on lots of one to five acres and commercial strips outside of town centres. Under that definition, much of the Gulf Islands could qualify.
The problem is misapplying urban sprawl solutions to rural environments. A response to urban sprawl has been to redevelop and further densify city centres. This makes sense because urban centres have the infrastructure to support a high population density, such as paved roads, and community water and sewage systems. The high cost of operating such systems is spread over many ratepayers, thereby making them affordable.
But applying the same principle to the Trust Area won’t work. Few islands have surface water sources or any sewage treatment plants. Even Ganges, with its community water and sewage systems, has a limited water supply and a sewage treatment plant that will eventually reach capacity.
On other Gulf Islands, new high-density residential developments are being proposed and approved with groundwater and on-site septic fields. This is very risky because, under these circumstances, effluent from a septic field can pollute surrounding wells. Some neighbours to these types of projects are already plagued with wells that fail in the summer. Now they fear polluted water as well, and may have to install expensive treatment systems or rely on water delivery.
This has not been an issue on Salt Spring yet because high-density developments are located in Ganges where there is a sewage treatment plant. But groundwater contamination on Gabriola, for example, is a warning about what can happen when densities are increased without city services.
There are some people on Salt Spring advocating for high-density development in rural areas outside of Ganges to make housing more affordable. This is a dangerous, slippery slope.
As it is we have septic systems on some one-acre parcels. Lots of this size are allowed because they have piped water from someplace else. But it’s not wise to risk polluting groundwater just because homes in the area are not using it. Septic effluent can travel to the ocean where high coliform levels cause shellfish harvesting closures, as in Fulford Harbour.
Yes, there are high-tech sewage treatment systems available, but they are costly, require proper operation and maintenance, and homeowners must adhere to warnings to shut down when there is a problem. Even normal community water treatment systems can be very expensive to build and maintain for a small number of users.
Putting high-density development dependent on wells and septic systems in rural areas is a bad idea. Densities should be kept low for public-health reasons and because the rural character is one of the Gulf Islands’ unique amenities that require protection. The next time you hear the term “rural sprawl,” think about how it is being used and for what purpose.