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Speed up or slow down? Islands Trust set to consider first reading of its new policy statement amid heated conversations

Bowen's two Trustees sit on either side of a debate that's heating up
People in the Library annex
An Islands 2050 event on Bowen Island in Sept. 2019

Should new private docks for car-accessible properties be banned across the Trust? How can policy best address the climate and biodiversity crises? Does housing belong in Trust policy? And the age-old governmental question – what’s adequate consultation?

Conversation is bubbling over the Islands Trust’s draft policy statement, Islands 2050, set to head to Trust Council for first reading next week.

Where Bowen has our Official Community Plan (that envisions the future of our community – our density, our climate targets, our land use) the Islands Trust has the policy statement. The 30-page document guides decision-making across the Trust area, including on Bowen Island. But, the current iteration is from 1994 (though there have been amendments). 

In 2017, Trust Council voted to enter into a multi-year amendment process and consultations began in 2019 (including an open house on Bowen and ferry booths), continuing through the COVID-encumbered 2020. In March, Trust Council dedicated a day to discussing the policy before staff went on to craft the earliest drafts of the new statement (read it starting on p. 17 of the new agenda). 

The new statement draws on three pillars – reconciliation, climate change and affordable housing. While rooting in the Trust’s “preserve and protect” objective, the draft statement takes a different approach from its predecessors on everything from how it’s structured, to how it addresses relationships with Indigenous peoples and stewardship, to agriculture, to forestry, to sea and foreshore infrastructure.  It bans docks for car-accessible properties, desalination facilities, as well as hard sea barriers like seawalls (rather promoting soft shoreline protection). It works to align with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. 

“It’s not business as usual,” described Bowen Trustee Sue Ellen Fast, who also sits on the Trust’s executive committee. 

But sweeping changes proposed in the document – and its timeline – have prompted outcry among islanders across the Trust area. Bowen’s two trustees – Fast and Michael Kaile – sit on either side of a multifaceted debate, much of which comes down to consultation. 

“It’s a complicated document. And given its far-reaching nature, a lot of people are turning around and saying, I didn’t know anything about this,” said Kaile. Instead of passing first reading of a document that he says will be subject to substantive changes, Kaile wants council to simply receive the document for information. 

“Islands Trust have made a case out that they have had consultation, but it’s very, very shallow. And it will certainly not pass the smell test for genuine people understanding what’s going on,” he said. 

Points of concern for Kaile include the Trust wading into affordable housing, (“They can help through zoning, just like a municipality can, but they have no cash –dealing with housing, this is an extremely complex situation right across Canada;”) questions of jurisdiction (docks, oil tankers, sea walls for example); and prescriptive language. 

"There is a sort of mortal fear that if this goes into first reading, what will happen it will set the print for [the policy statement] and it will just be bullied through,” he said.

But for Fast, time is of the essence. “Here we are, in a human-caused climate-related heat emergency. And so, the idea, to me, of delaying the policy statement update, which hasn’t been updated for 25 years, so that addressing climate change is delayed seems a little crazy.

“I actually like the draft because these burning hot issues of our time are addressed reconciliation and climate change and affordable housing and nature protection.”

Pointing to the past 18 months of consultations, Fast said she doesn’t see this process as rushed. “I see it as urgent that we take action to adjust the policies. 

“I think policy matters, regulations matter when we’re dealing with planetary crisis, like what we’ve got in front of us here, to build a better future.”

Fast also says that the current timeline has policy statement adoption, at the earliest, in fall 2022. “All [first reading] means is, here is what we’re working with at this point. So we’ve got something to refer out.”

Kaile acknowledges that it would be a mistake to pontificate over the statement for years – “That would be wrong, just as it would be wrong to run this through to first reading on July the eighth,” he said.

When it comes to the online debate heating up, Fast takes a positive spin. “We can have a vigorous debate about it. But I don’t think controversy’s bad. I think it’s good to get discussion going.”

“Now, I’m not sure that an anonymous letter is the best way to do it,” she said. 

An anonymous mass mailout distributed on several major Trust islands, including Bowen, alleged that the new policy includes “centralization to more regionally based land use planning…and the elimination of the uniqueness of each island,” and the “removal of residents, local economy and community health and well-being as planning considerations on the islands.”

The Islands Trust released its own frequently asked questions sheet, calling the allegations “false,” pointing to passages in the draft document. 

Fast said at Bowen Island Municipality's June 28 council meeting that the post office had reached out to her to apologize for the mailout and to say that it should not have been distributed.

Online, a Facebook group “Islands Trust policy and purpose discussion” has garnered more than 1,000 members in just a week as islanders across the Canadian side of the Salish Sea dissect the new draft statement.

Bowen Island Municipality chief administrative officer Liam Edwards said that BIM staff is watching the Trust policy statement keenly and should the draft pass first reading, would do a thorough examination of the policy and any parts that would affect the municipality.

The Islands Trust is holding an information session followed by a town hall meeting July 7 over Zoom, starting at 6:30 p.m. The virtual council meeting runs 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next day.