Trust’s devotion to environmental protection needs a tune-up: GIA

(GIA letter, November 16, 2007, to Islands Trust Local Planning Committee, regarding its Local Planning Services Review)

LPSreview 2007 [PDF]

Dear Trustees:

The Gulf Islands Alliance is a non-profit, grassroots organization with members based on islands under the jurisdiction of the Islands Trust. Among our objectives is to increase the effectiveness of the Islands Trust in fulfilling its “preserve and protect” object.

This letter provides comments on behalf of our members and the public regarding the Local Planning Services Review. We have some suggestions for improving how planning services are being delivered to Local Trust Committees and island communities. We recognize that we may not be as well informed on this subject as we would like to be and we look forward to exchanging views and information with you on this subject.

We wish to emphasize our support for what we believe to be a very significant recommendation that was made in the Local Planning Services Review conducted by Stantec Consulting in March 2007. On page 6 of that report under item 5.12 appears the following recommendation.

“It appears that most people understand the mandate, but there are not many people that feel that the Islands Trust is doing anything different or better than other typical BC municipalities in protecting and preserving the environment. The Islands Trust has the same planning tools as regional districts.

“This should get a higher priority and attention by working it in as a key element in its current and long range planning – from recruitment through processes. As LPS is functionally reorganized and other effective planning systems get put in place, there should be more time for addressing the specific elements of this key mandate and getting the Islands Trust into a leadership edge position.”

On page one, the Stantec report states that a wide range of people were interviewed, including most trustees, Trust planning staff and outside stakeholders. This indicates that most trustees agreed with this sentiment. The Gulf Islands Alliance (GIA) also believes that pursuit of the Trust mandate should get a higher priority in the day-to-day actions of Trust staff. One way to do this would be to implement the suggestion that GIA made at the June 2007 Trust Council meeting, that the Trust Policy Manual be amended to require all staff reports to analyze whether a proposed action by a Local Trust Committee or by Trust Council would further or hinder the Trust Object. We would like to see a thoughtful analysis in staff reports rather than the simple checklist currently recommended in the Trust Policy Manual. For example, when a Local Trust Committee (LTC) considers a new bylaw, the Trust staff report should include an analysis as to whether the new bylaw provides stronger or weaker protection for that island’s environment and community character and why.

Additionally, trustees, especially new trustees, may not always be fully aware of the legal tools that can be used to protect their island communities. When LTCs express their desire to increase protection for their island community, they depend on Trust staff to tell them how to accomplish this. That they receive this information is critical.

It has been suggested that staff time could be used more efficiently if bylaws and OCPs were more standardized across the islands. Although standardization is certainly more efficient, we urge caution. A great deal of work and community sweat has been invested in each island’s OCP and bylaws. The Trust islands are very different from one another. The Trust Act created individual LTCs and gave them the power to write individual OCPs and bylaws in order to protect these very differences. Any changes for the sake of efficiency should be encouraged but not imposed, and adopted only with the support of local communities and their LTC. For example, when new bylaws are being written for the first time, staff should be encouraged to use the appropriate Trust model bylaw as a starting point. If there is something that doesn’t fit the island, that can be adjusted.

It has been suggested that some planning staff members be dedicated to working only on long- term planning. During two recent OCP reviews (Salt Spring and North Pender), much hostility has been directed at local trustees. Perhaps this could have been prevented if the public participation process had been designed differently. It would be of benefit to have at least one Trust staff member who is an expert in state-of-the-art public participation processes. This staff person could work with LTCs to create OCP review programs that meet the needs of individual islands and promote productive collaboration among the trustees and the community. The OCP resulting from such a process would likely enjoy greater public support.

In revising OCPs, communities need to be informed about possible strategies to accomplish their goals. It would be helpful to have model OCP language for communities to work from. This does not need to be created from scratch because excellent model language has already been developed by Deborah Curran in her new publication, the “Green Infrastructure Toolkit,” which will be released this month. We urge the Trust to review this document. The bylaw language in this document was developed specifically to protect environmental values. In addition to model language, it would be most helpful to have various language options with an explanation of what each example would accomplish.

There has been discussion about how best to meet the needs of the smaller islands which do not have planners in residence. We think that it is important to have planners who specialize in certain islands so they can become familiar with the personality and history of each island. This will reduce unnecessary mistakes that can take much time to fix. Towards this end, we would not favour removing the Trust office from Gabriola.

It has been suggested that planners visit the smaller islands regularly to meet with the community there. We believe this would have the advantage of helping build positive relationships between the community and their Trust planner. However, at this time when it seems that there is a scarcity of Trust planning staff, we do have concerns about so many hours of planners’ time being spent traveling to and from Victoria.

Many in our islands’ community fear that university planning programs do not prepare planners for protecting a community, but rather for developing it. Therefore, we urge the Trust to provide in-service training for its staff about best practices around the world for protecting the culture and environment of endangered communities. This would include courses about how to conduct public participation programs that empower people and allow all sides of an issue to be debated in an open and constructive manner. Money for such programs is available from several granting organizations.

In closing, we urge you to seek out ways that Trust staff resources can be extended by encouraging Trust staff to work collaboratively with community groups on each island. Our islands are most generously endowed with community members who are experts in a variety of fields, including community planning, grant writing, biology, ecology. For example, the Trust could collaborate with a community group to sponsor staff in-service training, explore ways to work together to conduct better public participation programs, or gather statistical or biological information needed by the Trust. Funding for such programs could be applied for jointly by the Trust and the community group.

We are most interested in your work and welcome any of you to call us to discuss any of these suggestions. I can be reached at 250/537-1577 or at mleichter@telus.net.

Maxine Leichter, Trust Policy Project Chair, Gulf Islands Alliance