A project at the site of the former Fulford Inn has met its conditions for development permit approval, according to local trustees, who unanimously passed a resolution instructing staff to issue that permit to the developer — even as some expressed dissatisfaction with the process.
Trustees Jamie Harris, Laura Patrick and Tim Peterson voted to approve the resolution, with Peterson voting orally — not raising his hand, in what he called a symbolic gesture of his reluctance — during the local Trust committee (LTC) meeting Thursday, Feb. 9, after public comment and a wide-ranging discussion on how — and whether — the Islands Trust committee could meaningfully interact with First Nations in its role of guiding development.
The development permit application for the Vortex, owned by Merchant House Capital, whose principal and founder David Fullbrook lives on Salt Spring, was conditionally approved through an LTC resolution passed at an Aug. 9, 2022 meeting; those conditions included submitting revised plans that reflected the relocated sewage disposal fields at the site, according to planner Anthony Fotino, and staff agreed to recommend approval.
“My rationale for this recommendation is that the applicant has fulfilled the conditions of the resolution,” said Fotino, outlining the steps trustees had requested and how they had been completed by the developer.
But the long-debated project, which intends to construct 17 commercial guest units, a restaurant and accessory facilities at the mouth of Fulford Harbour, has never failed to elicit community reaction at meetings — and there would be no exception at this one. During the public comment period preceding consideration of the Vortex proposal, resident Jean Wilkinson stood to read an email she said she received that morning from Lyackson First Nation consultations coordinator Karyn Scott, expressing opposition to the development specifically and the lack of “satisfactory engagement or meaningful consultation with the Islands Trust” in general.
“We strongly recommend and request the LTC and Islands Trust commence meaningful discussions with our communities to understand the infringement the Vortex development poses to our Indigenous interests,” said the letter Wilkinson read. “We are saddened and disappointed that once again, Islands Trust and its LTCs are ignoring the voices of the Indigenous peoples who will bear the disproportionate impact of these harmful decisions.”
Yet even as trustees agreed on the importance of engagement with First Nations, they were clearly conflicted. Later in the meeting, trustees would instruct staff to develop options for interim protocols for “meaningful and respectful” engagement between themselves and regional and local Indigenous organizations.
But for the moment, and until such protocols were in place, this project at least would move forward. Harris — who later helped craft the protocol request resolution, guiding it to include Salt Spring Island’s Indigenous groups specifically — felt Vortex offered an opportunity for Fulford, not a calamity.
“I see in this report that a great deal of time and effort has been put into making sure that the creek is going to be protected from waste water,” said Harris. “I know there was a kind of hole put in the community’s heart when the Fulford Inn became no more; this could inject some vitality in the community.”
Patrick was more circumspect.
“We have [an] email of some concern that was raised today,” said Patrick. “I’d like to make sure we dot our i’s and cross our t’s; that we’ve done what we’re supposed to do. Is there urgency that this has to occur today?”
An option was presented by staff to withhold approval and request more information. However, regional planning manager Chris Hutton said the August resolution of conditional approval was “unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” and expressed there might be difficulty in justifying another deferral.
“This resolution seems to say that the permit is approved, and then adds additional conditions after the fact,” said Hutton, again noting the submitted drawings meet the LTC’s guidelines. “I would suggest that if you’re not content with the drawing that has been submitted, or the applicant’s efforts to meet the guidelines, you can certainly provide us with a comment back on how they can be improved. But I would not suggest that it might be a good idea to contemplate further input on this, [given] that this resolution exists.”
“I think if we request further information at this point it’s not setting up a good precedent,” said Harris. “All the concerns have been met, and they’re quite stringent. And let’s face it, this is private property. We don’t have the position of power to requisition private property back from folks and hand it over to First Nations.”
Patrick noted the upcoming building permit process would necessitate permits through the provincial archaeological branch.
“I would assume that First Nations have the opportunity to influence the province, which does have a requirement to consult with First Nations,” said Patrick. “We don’t have that law that the province does. I’m hoping that is the pathway [where] they can voice their opinions.”
Patrick added it was frustrating, because while she felt the LTC was focused on trying to build better relations with First Nations, they were continually put in a position of “making it look like we are not trying to build relationships.”
“I can agree with trustee Patrick,” said Tim Peterson. “There isn’t clear policy. We have a Trust Council declaration on First Nations reconciliation, but at the same time we’re put in a very difficult position, especially in this case, when there’s already been a ‘subject-to’ approval.”
Harris said the LTC’s relationships with First Nations were important, but he was unconvinced that “bending at the last minute” would do anything to improve them.
“And I’m concerned that some people are seeking out First Nations and feeding them information to try and curb development here,” said Harris, “when in fact this is a really positive thing for the community. If anything, this is going to improve that area, because as it sits now, it doesn’t look good.”
Ultimately, the development permit was approved — as was a resolution requesting staff “explore options to enter into interim protocols for meaningful and respectful engagement between the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee and the WSÁNEC Leadership Council, the Cowichan Nation Alliance, and Salt Spring Island local Indigenous organizations.”