British Columbia·Analysis

Salt Spring Island and the fight over incorporation

People on the largest of B.C.'s gulf islands vote today on whether it should become a municipality. To an outsider, it may seem like a low-stakes decision. On the island, it's anything but.

After a heated summer of debate, Salt Spring Islanders vote today on whether to become a municipality

Both the Yes and No campaigns on the issue of whether Salt Spring Island should become a municipality have set up information tables at grocery stores and other gathering spots on the largest of B.C. gulf islands. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Tracy Johnson is a CBC reporter based in Calgary and has family living on B.C.'s Salt Spring Island who are voting Yes in a referendum today on whether to make the island a municipality. Her following analysis is based on interviews with non-family members living on Salt Spring.

It's been a warm, dry summer on B.C.'s Salt Spring Island. As they do every year, tourists pour onto the island from the ferries, eager to explore; sailboats and yachts bob in the Ganges harbour, sparkling in the sun. 

For residents, though, it's been less a summer of sun and fun, and more a summer of conflict and campaigning, of arguing with neighbours on Facebook about property hikes and the state of the island's roads, the contents of its fire hydrants, and the disposition of solid waste. 

Salt Spring Islanders have been grappling with whether they should vote to make the island a municipality and elect a mayor and councillors, or remain a rural area under the control of the Gulf Islands Trust and B.C.'s Capital Regional District (CRD).

It's likely to all come to a head today when Islanders vote in a referendum on the issue.

To an outsider, it may seem like a relatively low-stakes decision, but to residents, it's anything but. Both the Yes (in favour of a municipality) and No (opposed to a municipality) sides feel that nothing less than the future of Salt Spring is at stake.
Shelley Mahoney runs the Salt Spring Incorporation Discussion group on Facebook, on which 26,000 posts, comments and reactions have been logged in the past month. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Passions high on the island

Tensions bubbled up this summer on local websites such as the Salt Spring Exchange and notably on Facebook, where every day, a pitched battle takes place on the SS Incorporation Discussion group. Shelley Mahoney, who administers the group, and is also a Yes campaigner, says there have been tens of thousands of comments on the page in the past month.

"I started it in November," she said. "At first there was a lot of back and forth and then some of the No folks got rude and that made us rude."

Mahoney pointed out there have been more than 26,000 posts, comments and reactions on the group in the past month or so, most of them constructive.

"It's easy to look at the nasty, but overall we shared a lot and  it brought out a lot of voices that have never been involved in this."

There's one bouquet of flowers left at this farm stand, which sits an the end of local driveway on Salt Spring Island (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Unique character of the Gulf Islands

No one questions that Salt Spring Island is a special place, the most populated of B.C's Gulf Islands, with just over 10,000 residents. It's blessed with temperate weather in the winter and sunshine in the summer. There are natural lakes, a beautiful shoreline, places to hike and a laid-back approach to life that includes a dedication to hitchhiking that crosses generations, and end-of-driveway farm stands where residents sell whatever they picked that day. It's a little like living in the travel section of a magazine.

It also has a form of governance unique to B.C.'s Gulf Islands. Land use and zoning on all but one of the 13 islands is controlled by the Islands Trust, an elected group of 26 trustees, two from each island. The mandate of the trust is to preserve and protect the nature of the Gulf Islands.

If you want to subdivide or change the zoning for a piece of land, that decision is ultimately made by a group of three trustees, two from your island and a third from off-island. That "preserve and protect" mandate means that development on any of the islands can be a challenge.

Services to Salt Spring are delivered by a patchwork of authorities. There's a fire board, multiple water boards that provide potable water, the federal government provides policing, roads are managed by the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, and the CRD in Victoria provides other services such as parks and transit. 

If Salt Spring were to form a municipality, all those responsibilities, from land use to policing to parks and recreation, would come under the control of a city council, with six councilors and a mayor. That is the goal of the Yes side, arguing that the island's population has grown to the point where it needs a local municipal government.

The Yes side

"We've got a divided, fragmented form of governance that consists of many moving parts and many independent taxing authorities. We don't see that a good way to govern an island that has a lot of complex issues," said John MacPherson, an organizer for the Yes side.

A lighthearted example: this past Aug. 1, at 3 a.m., local realtor Eric Booth armed himself with a roller and a can of paint, and repainted the lines on the main road through the village of Ganges, which forks in the village centre. It seemed easier than getting the attention of Victoria.

Of course, lines on the roads are not the biggest issue on the island.

Affordable housing looms large, with Yes proponents pointing to projects that haven't been able to get off the ground because of a lack of co-ordination between land use and water availability. Water is also an issue, with the water boards operating independently of the Island's Trust the CRD and the fire department. The argument on the Yes side is that a municipal council would be more effective, accessible, and efficient.
Peter Lamb, a former Islands trustee for Salt Spring and a campaigner for the No side, is less concerned about efficient governance than land use. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

'Remember why you live here'

The tag line of the No side is simple: "Remember why you live here."

Those opposed to incorporation say they are concerned about the island's large network of roads and what the costs will be to repair and maintain them if that becomes the responsibility of a municipality. But at the base of all their arguments is the fear the island's basic nature would be changed by having elected officials responsible for both land use decisions and delivery of services.

Once the island has the responsibility for roads, police and water and fire, it also would have to pay for them through property taxes. While the province offers up buffer money for the transition, the core concern of the No side is that to raise money to provide services , taxes would either have to go higher, or the municipality can bring in development to expand the tax base.

"The Islands Trust is an experiment in twinning private land use and in how you balance it with nature. I just want this experiment to continue. We already have all the tools we need to continue," said Brenda Guiled, who is campaigning for the No side.

The Islands Trust was created in 1974 with the goal of separating land use decisions from services because of rapid development on the Gulf Islands.

"Any attempt to merge the two would cause the problems we were getting away from," said Peter Lamb, a former trustee who is also voting against the move. He is less concerned about efficient governance than land use.

"It's not what's the most efficient way of doing this, but what kind of community do we want?"

Ken Marr, who operates the Windsor Plywood on Salt Spring Island, is a Yes campaigner in the incorporation debate. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Role of the Islands Trust

One of the questions under debate is what the role of the Islands Trust would be under a possible incorporation. Salt Spring would continue to have two trustees representing the island in the larger trust. The municipality has to adhere to the Islands Trust principles of preserving and protecting the island, but the trust would lose its power to make the final decision on land use.

"There's a real concern that there's a bunch of big bad developers on the other side of the pond that are ready to jump onto Salt Spring if we become a municipality," said Ken Marr, a Yes campaigner who owns the local Windsor Plywood store. 

"Our island is never going to go for something like that. I see no reason whatsoever that we would  to change our values the minute we become a municipality. We are the only jurisdiction that I know of in North America that have elected a Green MLA and a Green MP. We value the environment."

To "preserve and protect" is something we all support,: said Guiled. "With some wanting to keep the hardwired means to ensure it, while others believe that a municipal council would honour it without that safeguard. Come Saturday evening, we'll see."