Population and tourism growth could undermine islands’ goals

The population of the Gulf Islands in the Trust area grew by 10 percent from 2001 to 2006, twice the BC and Canadian rates. Now at 25,366, the largest numerical increases occurred on Gabriola, Bowen and Salt Spring islands.

Since the Trust was launched in 1974, the population on its major islands by 2006 had more than doubled.

The most recent 5-year rate of change ranged from a 2.2 percent decrease in the Lasqueti Island Local Trust Area to a 48 percent increase in the South Pender Island Local Trust Area.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of private dwellings grew by 6.5 percent during the same time.

The impact of rapid population growth on our treasured natural and social environments, in particular from part-time residents and vacationers, is a priority issue for the Gulf Islands Alliance.

The Islands Trust Council is a federation of independent local governments responsible for managing development while preserving and protecting the unique environment of the Islands Trust Area. The area covers the islands and waters between the mainland and southern Vancouver Island. It includes 13 major and more than 450 smaller islands covering 5200 square kilometres.

The new Gulf Islands Alliance supports the declaration of leaders who created the Islands Trust: “We won’t let these precious jewels slip through our fingers.”

Haunted by too many examples of beautiful places in the world that have been ruined after being discovered and exploited, Alliance members know that their task is difficult and complex.

The Alliance is monitoring the increase in ‘second’ homes and vacation rentals. Permanent residents occupy fewer than 15 percent of the houses in the Gambier Trust area. On Thetis, only 37 percent of homes are occupied by permanent residents. Across all the islands in the Trust Area only 66.5 per cent of private dwellings are occupied by residents.

“We will understand more about the reasons for these changes once the demographic data are released,” says Kim Benson, chair of Islands Trust.

“They will show the distribution of age groups on the islands. We are also looking forward to additional future releases of Census information about housing affordability, mobility, and employment.”

In a mix of what some people perceive as ineffective bylaws and enforcement, many investors buy properties for high prices and build multi-suite homes and ‘guest’ cottages and then rent them short-term, often illegally, at commercial rates. The Alliance is concerned that this will pressure communities to become vacation destinations, and hollow out our neighbourhoods. Many existing and would-be residents will be sidelined by unaffordable property values and taxes. Property values on the islands almost doubled from 2001 to 2006.

On some islands, waterfront land assessments shot up 160 percent in 2007. Some shocked residents fought back by successfully appealing to the BC Property Assessment Appeal Board.

Once the erosion of communities begins, the displacement of caring people who voluntarily look after their neighbors and neighbourhoods may be very difficult to reverse.

“We seem to be bucking the national trend towards urbanization,” Benson said. “On average, Canada’s rural areas and small towns grew by only 1 per cent between 2001 and 2006. Fewer than 20 percent of Canadians lived in small towns and rural areas in 2006.

The Islands Trust contracts with Statistics Canada to provide it with customized data for each of the Local Trust Areas and Island Municipalities in the Islands Trust Area. The data are useful for a wide range of community planning purposes. Trends can be compared to those in British Columbia and Canada as a whole by viewing the Statistics Canada report Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006.

But the Gulf Islands Alliance is optimistic because we know that many concerned islanders are ready to work with us and in their communities to help preserve and protect our islands.

Here are the populations of Trust Area islands, as of 2006, from Statistics Canada:

Bowen Island 3,362

Denman Trust Area (TA) 1,095

Gabriola TA 4,050

Galiano TA 1,258

Gambier TA 313

Hornby TA 1,074

Lasqueti TA 359

Mayne TA 1,112

North Pender TA 1,996

Saturna TA 359

Salt Spring TA 9780

South Pender TA 236

Thetis TA 372