YEARS AGO, a Salt Spring resident described a typically testy public meeting where an angry audience member leaped up to point an accusing finger at an elected official:
“I’m tired of you outsiders waltzing in here and telling us what to do!”
“But I’ve lived on Salt Spring all my life,” protested the official.
Salt Spring, the island famously described by Valdy as “a difference of opinion surrounded by water,” is divided again. Or still. Take your pick.
At issue is a Sept. 9 vote in which islanders will choose whether to incorporate as a municipality.
To some, it’s a referendum on the subject they care about the most: Salt Spring’s quality of life. No one has as keen a sense of place as do islanders, ferociously protective of the peaceful and bucolic. What they disagree on is how to guard what they cherish.
It will be the second incorporation vote in 15 years, the first being rejected by a 2-1 margin in 2002. This time, residents can turn to a provincially funded study to help inform them (though, of course, islanders are divided over the veracity of its findings).
Those on the Yes side say electing a seven-member municipal council would allow B.C.’s largest unincorporated community — there are 10,600 permanent residents — to control its own destiny.
As it is, they are represented by a single director elected to the 24-member Capital Regional District board, plus two voted to the Islands Trust. The latter body was established by the provincial government in 1974 to protect and preserve the lovely leafiness of the Gulf Islands. It’s that mandate that has limited real estate development and population growth.
Those on the No side fear incorporation would weaken that barrier, opening the door to a building boom that would change Salt Spring’s character. Fear-mongering, replies the Yes side.
Both camps are well organized. The pro-incorporation Yes Empowers Salt Spring Island view can be found at YesToSaltSpringMunicipality.org. Incorporation foes, bolstered by well-known names such as Arthur Black of CBC Radio fame and former MLA Gary Holman, make their arguments at PositivelyNo.org.
Signs of the tug of war are evident around the island. Bulletin boards advertise No-sponsored panel discussions at the Fulford Hall and the Legion. “YESS! Yes empowers Salt Spring Island” declares a banner strung across a fence on Fulford-Ganges Road, visible to passing ferry traffic.
Development isn’t the only point of contention. Who would pay how much to maintain roads is a biggish deal, as is the impact on taxes.
On the Yes side, one of the big drivers is the difficulty of getting anything done in a community with no co-ordinated governance. Decision-making is divided among the CRD, the Islands Trust, the harbour authority and four water districts, working independently.
“It’s an incredibly fractured system,” says YESS’s Matt Steffich, sitting in his Ganges art gallery.
He has been active in community life for 25 years but has deemed it prudent to stay out of politics — until now, fed up with the “glacial” pace at which decision-making occurs. Yes, the community built a new swimming pool and arts centre, but it took forever.
“It’s like there’s this wet blanket lying over the island,” he says. The struggle to complete a waterfront boardwalk abandoned in 1991 has become a symbol of inertia. When the harbour authority told the popular Tree House restaurant to remove outdoor tables and chairs, it took years to resolve. When one of the water boards unilaterally declared no more connections, it got sued.
“People say ‘We don’t want to lose what makes Salt Spring special,’ ” Steffich says. “Well, having an inefficiently run system isn’t what I consider special.”
The No side doesn’t see it that way. It celebrates what it sees as a community run not by government but by engaged citizens who stage the fall fair and film festival, get facilities such as the new library built, and ensure playing fields and trails are maintained. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (or pave it) is their approach.
“We’ve accomplished a huge amount since the last referendum,” says Positively No’s Peter Lamb, a former Islands Trust trustee. He lists the pool, seniors housing, the conservation of wild spaces… Since the last vote, islanders have been able to wrangle $60 million in grants and government transfers, he says. Why change the form of government and jeopardize what makes Salt Spring special?
Yes, the existing system could be improved, Lamb says, but it has been hard to do that with so much attention on the incorporation option. The real risk, he says, is dumping the status quo for a municipal council whose land-use decisions would put less weight on the preserve-and-protect mandate of the Islands Trust. “Incorporation severely weakens the authority of the trust.”
Steffich disagrees: “No one’s talking about rampant development.”
And back and forth the debate goes, neither side reluctant to wade in. Home to counter-culture contrarians, plain-spoken farmers and well-educated retirees, Salt Spring is known for its lamb, not its sheep.
© Copyright Times Colonist
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.