Salt Spring Island Residents Demand Change in Bylaw System
Property owners say pandemic has worsened ‘flawed’ enforcement
By Meg McLachlan
Residents of the most populous Gulf Island are speaking out over what they are calling unfair bylaw enforcement of the Islands Trust mandate “to preserve and protect.”
The Islands Trust was established in 1974 as both a local entity as well as a larger federation encompassing 13 major islands and 450 smaller ones. On Salt Spring Island, elected Trustee Laura Patrick sits on both the local committee as well as the federation. Although the latter governing body is responsible for the bylaw enforcement budget, Patrick says they maintain an arm’s length in operation.
“We make the rules, so we shouldn’t be the ones that are now enforcing the rules,” Patrick said.
However, according to Patrick, the Trust can steer bylaw officers toward the enforcement of certain regulations.
“We can instruct bylaw enforcement to either avoid bylaw enforcement on certain topics or pay attention to bylaw enforcement on certain topics,” Patrick said.
Under the Islands Trust bylaw system, when a property owner receives a fine, the onus falls on them to prove they are not in violation of any bylaws.
Guilty until proven innocent
Mielle Chandler, long time island resident and owner of a nine-acre farm, says the bylaw enforcement system has become more draconian, especially since the pandemic began.
“When you’re criminally charged, you immediately have all of these protections, like innocent until proven guilty,” Chandler said. “In the bylaw process, you never get to know who made the allegations against you.”
Chandler had given her 80-year-old mother the use of her cottage on the island at the beginning of the pandemic. And while planning to build another structure for herself, she decided to sleep in her trailer on her property. “In order to build a house and a barn and an outbuilding, we need to sleep somewhere,” Chandler said.
But she was forced to leave her trailer for sleeping in it for more than 90 days after complaints were made to bylaw officers.
In order to avoid a fine Chandler had to demonstrate she was not violating the bylaw. “Every night I would video myself, proving I’m not sleeping [in my trailer] and post it to Facebook,” Chandler said.
On Oct 6, 2020, the Islands Trust passed a standing resolution instructing bylaw officers to stop enforcement of unlawful buildings during COVID-19 after receiving multiple complaints from residents.
“In a way, we’re saying, we’re turning out heads,” Patrick said. However, she reminded residents these standing resolutions are temporary. “[The order] can disappear as easily as it shows up,” said Patrick.
‘The process is flawed’
According to some island property owners, they are receiving fines in the mail with little or no warning of any outstanding issue.
“The process is flawed,” said Dori Howard, owner of a well-known yoga and coaching retreat on the island, who received a number of violations in the mail last fall.
In September 2020, Howard received a letter in the mail from the Islands Trust claiming the operation of her tree house on Airbnb was suddenly an illegal building after more than two years.
“I’m allowed to have a bed and breakfast on my property in a seasonal cottage, and that’s what I have,” said Howard.
After the Trust announced the standing resolution in October, Howard believed it would put a pause on her violation and expressed this to the enforcement officer who administered the fine.
In a phone call a few weeks later, Howard said she was told by the administering officer that he was sending her another letter.
According to Howard, she never received a letter or a warning, just eight tickets totalling $8,000 in fines.
Bylaw compliance and enforcement manager Warren Dingman, who represents the Islands Trust, says the bylaw enforcement process is fair.
“When someone receives a …complaint…we send the property owner a letter”, said Dingman. “That is the first notice that a person gets.”
Following that, a file is opened, and a discussion is requested between a bylaw officer and property owner where a site visit is arranged.
“Then, after that, they can get a demand letter. Asking and requesting compliance if that deadline is not met. They will get what we call a bylaw violation warning notice. It’s in the form of a ticket,” Dingman said.
Among Howard’s eight tickets were claims she was operating a commercial venture in her workshop, which she says she has not done. She was accused of spreading gravel fill on her property, which she claims is false.
Howard was ticketed for having a building within 15 metres of a body of water, which she says it is not.
When Howard asked Dingman for evidence they have for any of these violations, Dingman cited an aerial screenshot of Howard’s property she believes is from Google Earth.
“[They] have no substantive evidence. [They] have not come here to look at it. [They] are giving me tickets for things that should never have been issued in the first place,” Howard said.
Patrick believes the lack of communication has been a major issue for bylaw enforcement during the pandemic.
“Typically, without the pandemic being present, they would go and inspect the properties. They would immediately get the feel for the persons’ reactions to their situation,” said Patrick. “And we can’t get that over Zoom [or] in a letter writing environment.”
Even prior to the pandemic, the lack of communication from the Islands Trust has been something Patrick wants to fix.
“You can move to this island, buy a house and start living here and not even know the Islands Trust exists,” she said. “That’s a problem.”