Friday, February 15, 2013

This afternoon's playground

Got a bunch of work done today so to celebrate I headed out on my SUP for an hour long paddled from Tunstall Bay to Cape Roger Curtis across pristine shoreline teeming with life. Gulls eating starfish and anemones, oystercatchers with their high pitched calls skimming the top if the way. Eagles soaring over the trees.

Only the slightest hint of a headwind outward bound but glassy still on the return leg. It's so quiet out here today.

And the beauty of living on the South Coast of BC in winter is that Sunday I will go skiing with the kids over at Cypress Mountain.

Beach in Friday, ski hills on Sunday. Winter ain't so bad after all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Passage Island

Thus morning, at the entrance to Howe Sound where I live.

We are entering early spring here in the south coast. I call it herring season. Daffodils are a couple of inches above the earth, redwing blackbirds are calling in the Cove and the rain and the sky are both lighter.

Herring will be coming soon and with them perhaps the dolphins that feed on them. It's quiet at this time of year. And we are waiting.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Economic Development on Bowen Island

We currently have an economic development advisory committee hard at work trying to figure out how to bring a vision for Bowen's economy to life.  The vision they are working with is this:

An economically vibrant Bowen Island provides for the range of incomes and ages necessary to support social diversity in the community; and incorporates sectors of the economy that have a light environmental footprint, and by virtue of the diversity of these sectors is for the most part, recession proof. While commuters continue to be an important part of the economy, increasingly Islanders will have opportunities to live and work on Bowen, be appropriately compensated for their work, and be able to find accommodation suitable to their talents, needs, and incomes.

I too have been thinking about this vision lately and talking about it with several islanders.  What follows are some basic thoughts about this stuff.

The basic summary is this:  we are in a very privileged place on Bowen Island.  We have a wealthy population and an economy based on preserving and increasing private property value.  Our appetite for development that is not in line with supporting these values is minimal.  Therefore we need to shift our thinking to a community development model.

I kind of regret these thoughts actually because if I was King of Bowen Island, I would have things happening very differently.  But after ten years of thinking, talking and watching these issues play out I am convinced that Bowen Island is stuck in a track that is influenced by the attachment that homeowners here have to the value of their properties.

The kind of place we are

We are unique in the Lower Mainland.  We are an island and a terminus.  Nothing goes through us, and there is no itinerant economic activity.  Towns similar size to us located on highways have many more chances to grab a hold of the traffic that goes through their communities, but we don't have that chance.  Most of our land is either developed private land or Crown land in mostly undevelopable slope conditions.

As a result, most of the wealth on Bowen comes from land value and commuting salaries.  Land value and equity is locked up in houses or property and when it is liquidated, it is spent off island for the most part.  Commuting salaries support the bulk of families on Bowen and pay the tax bills that keep the municipality going.  Most of this money is also spent off island.  What little economy we have on Bowen is supported by commuting salaries with a little top up from summertime visitors.

Our commercial life has developed to meet the basic immediate needs of Bowen islanders.  From the time the Union Steamships Company closed, Bowen Islanders worked hard to attract basic services to allow for a life on the island.  A general store, post office, doctor, building supplier, drugstore, a coffee shop or two are all basic services that made full time island life possible.  As a result of this stable set of commercial services, the island was able to grow steadily and developers were able to build more and more houses.  Our population increased from the low hundreds in the 1970s to about 3500 in the 1990s and it has stayed pretty steady over the last ten years.

We cannot support much more growth in the "basic services sector."  We are pretty much tapped out here and there are few opportunities to develop more.  Only a fool would try to start another coffee shop, or a food store on Bowen at this point.  The capital cost is simply too high.

Optional commercial services (such as taxis) are very marginal and depend on topping up the market with visitors.  Over the years we have had a taxis service come and go.  the introduction of the bus service put Wes Magee out of business, and the water taxi market can probably sustain one and a half operators, and there is already one in the market.  We had a movie theatre for a while, but it couldn't make it.

The tourist economy and why pursuing it is a folly

It would seem like the holy grail of economic development would be our natural setting.  By all rights we should be a tourist destination.  We can easily compete with other islands for nature based recreational activities or for destination based tourism.  The problem is that we actually don't want a tourist based economy.

The truth of it is that Bowen Islanders tolerate limited tourism.  We don't mind people coming over for the day, but we have actively worked against efforts to create a tourist based economy.  The reason is simple: Islanders see tourism as a threat to their land values and an infringement on their privacy.  Over the past 20 years we have made it very easy for the property development to take root.  despite what developers say, our whole economy is now geared towards their needs.  We always privilege development of private property over commercial, industrial or tourism based business development.  

The recent National Park debate was the most recent example of this.  I was of the belief that establishing a National Park on Bowen island was a bold move that open up all kinds of on island business opportunities.  I had a view that we would become an island of walks, with trails linking small commercial centres, dotted with inns and B&Bs, campsites and other amenities.  We could have had a set of trails that would invite visitors to walk around and through our natural parklands, hiking several kilometres a day and resting in a series of staying places, perhaps each with a small pub and a place to stay.  A preliminary economic impact assessment of the National Park initiative was generally positive with respect to creating these kinds of activities.  An imaginative Council and an interested populace could have put together the right kinds of zoning infrastructure outside the Park to support this activity.

But, in November 2011, Islanders rejected the National park proposal.  There were many reasons why they did so, but it mostly boils down to a perceived negative impact by having many many tourists visiting our island, and by the ways in which park lands might negatively affect our properties.  When I saw the Park debate turning that way, I was surprised, but it revealed a lot to me about the kind of place we are, and the kind of values people hold.  And I think the acrimony and spite of that debate limited our ability to do anything significant with the tourist economy for a very long time.

With respect to tourism, Bowen will continue to enjoy visitors who come once or twice for a day or two.  they will walk around the lake, rent kayaks and perhaps stop at the Pub to have a beer.  But every effort to attract visitors to stay longer than a night has been met with opposition.  We have had retreat centres constrained by covenants in the case of the Bowen Lodge by the Sea and The Vineyard (which became The Orchard when the owners sold out).  We have had proposal after proposal to allow camping defeated.  We had an inn proposal at Artisan Square defeated.  And the National Park was voted down.  That is a clear message.

There is nothing "wrong" with our economy

Planning our economy is a tricky business because we are a municipality with the economy of a neighbourhood.  We should not plan as if we were a town, a city or a First Nation.  We are an island that is largely populated with commuters.  The commuters bring in salaries that make it possible for non-commuters to stay here.  Our basic commercial services profile looks like Dunbar rather than Squamish or Tofino.  We have nothing here that people can't get elsewhere, except for a unique marine environment, which is accessible from our two marinas and kayak rentals place.  Our major natural draw are the trails around Killarney Lake and up Mount Gardner.  These generate very little economic activity.

As a community, as an economic entity and by the standards of Canadian life in general, Bowen Island is a complete success.  It is a wealthy enclave with a very high standard of living.  We have a very low rate of unemployment because people that can't afford to live here leave.  Most businesses are stable, but we are a very difficult place for entrepreneurs in general to start new businesses.  And so I imagine that we will live pretty much with the status quo for a long time now, and I imagine that most islanders will be satisfied with that.

I think, despite vision statements to the contrary that we are NOT committed to a diverse economy or a diverse society.  We are slow to build affordable housing, seniors housing or density that allows for a mix of incomes and family types.  Most of our social problems are outsourced to the mainland, which has been the strategy that has sustained ever increasing wealth.  If we were to look at the amount of equity owned in Bowen Island properties I think we would see that this has increased extensively over the past few decades.  This is the real nature of our economy.  It is the real engine and nit has veto power.  Any strategy that threatens the upward climb of property values will be defeated, obstructed or rejected out of hand.

Those of us that were lucky enough to buy land on Bowen are now amongst the richest people in the world.

We are part of a bigger system as well, and our economic well being is dependant on many factors out of the control of the Bowen Island Council.  We live or die based on the stable nature of our current economic system.  As long as it stays healthy, our commuters will stay healthy and the local economy of Bowen will continue to thrive.  If it radically changes, the local economy of Bowen will radically change as well.

The Bowen island Transition group is doing a series of analyses about this option, but this is not an option that Islanders will readily choose nor is it one that we can create with a few policy decisions.  Transition planning is an exercise in preparing for shift, much like earthquake preparedness or emergency planning.

Bowen In Transition is engaging in a number of protoypes of activities that could take place in an uch different kind of economy.  Their initiatives have been met with some scepticism but I believe they are useful to give us an indication of directions we might be able to go should the circumstances warrant it.

What is needed?

Nothing lasts forever. Our current economic system is stable and well established and may last for the rest of my lifetime.  And as long as it does, the economy on Bowen island will remain the same.

But should their be a shift, it will be a sudden one.  If that should happen, our economy will become much more dependant on community.

I believe that instead of doing economic development planning, we should be doing community development.  A far better use of our attention and resources would be to focus on the spaces and practices that help us come together as community.  Top amongst these is the development of a multiuser community centre which we can use to meet, and work in to develop community capacities.  A second proposal would be to carefully plan so that we don't lose current places of community.  A vibrant village is a key asset in community, and sacrificing it to ferry marshalling would force less and less interaction between Islanders in our shared space, and more and more retreating to private homes and cars.

Community festivals such as Steamship Days, BowFest, BowFeast and Halloween are very important as well.  These events are good uses of taxpayer dollars because they bring us together in a way that private business or economic development does not.

I have thought long and hard about this issue mostly because I don't actually like what I have concluded.  I think a diverse and vibrant economy on Bowen is possible but not under the current economic conditions.  Without a massive collapse in real estate value, or a fundamental restructuring of our economy, Bowen will continue to be a wealthy, exclusive and well off community. I feel we owe it to our kids to use or position of privilege to leave them a resilient community where our reaction to massive change will not be hiding away in our private homes, but coming together in community to reinvent Bowen.  Perhaps that won't happen in my life time, but if it does. I will be glad that we planned for it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

What to do about Mannion Bay

If you look at a map of Bowen you'll see a big bite taken out of the Eastern side of the island. That bay is called Mannion Bay, named for one of the original settlers of Bowen Island, Joseph Mannion. It's a beautiful looking body of water, a protected bay looking across the Queen Charlotte Cannel to the Brittania Mountains on the continent. It's protected nature makes it a good place to paddleboard, especially in the winter when the winds and swell can be unpredictable in more exposed parts of the island.

There are three beaches on Mannion Bay, Sandy Beach, Mothers Beach and Pebbly Beach. These are our neighborhood beaches, used by local residents especially in the summer. And because the bay is protected, it is used as a free moorage by boat owners. There are three live aboard residents in the bay, several boats moored there over the winter, many more who arrive there on weekends in the summer and several other boats that are abandoned.

There are several issues in the bay, and they have been increasing over the years. The beaches are often unsafe for swimming due to fecal Coliform counts in the summer. There are a number of shipwrecks in the bay which over the years have leeched oil and battery chemicals into the seabed. There is literally tons of debris on the floor of the bay, some of it toxic, some of it just dangerous to shipping. Sandy Beach currently has a boat wrecked on the shore.

As I am a water user of the Bay, (and often floating in it as a paddle boarder) I have been interested in these issues over the years. I've learned that there are a number of causes for the deteriorating condition of the bay. These include:

  • Improper or illegal activity by boaters, including dumping garbage or improper waste disposal.
  • Abandonment of boats by owners who can't afford them anymore. These boats are ripped from their moorings during storms and sink or wash up on shore and then leach chemicals and debris into the bay.
  • improper septic systems for the properties surrounding the bay. Many of these systems are legacy systems from the time before there were proper health standards. I have no idea how many septic systems need upgrading or repairing but it is significant. The water quality in the is primarily impacted by this issue.
A group of people have banded together to do something about the boat problem and they have been very active in recruiting our local MP into the fray. The group is spearheaded by the indomitable Bruce Russell who is a guy that is undaunted by obstacles, I have no doubt as long as he is involved there will be a resolution to the boat issue. The group Friends of Mannion Bay has tackled the problem of enforcing the complex regulatory environment that applies to boats and private marine property.  Today there was a letter in the Undercurrent about their efforts.

While I applaud these efforts, and especially Bruce's efforts to rally all the affected folks together - although I notice that the live aboards are not listed as being included in the Friends of the Bay and i hope he can reach out to them as collaborators instead of targets - one of the biggest concerns remains, and that is the septic problem in the watershed. The boating problem is a big part of the work that needs to be done, and I'm glad local property owners (of which I am one) are working together. But we also have a responsibility to the Bay. I have one of the few septic systems in my whole neighborhood that is up to code. There are a few other newer properties along Miller Road that also have up to code systems in good repair,

But many of the properties directly on the Bay or above the roads around the bay are having problems with their septic systems. To date I know of no study that has documented the state of the septic systems around the Bay, but I think we need that, for all of us whose fields drain into the water. While that is a municipal and provincial responsibility and the state of the water in the Bay is a federal responsibility, I wonder whether several levels of government can collaborate with property owners to do a proper assessment.

Solving the boating problems will take care of a large part of the issue and it's easier, because it is "out there.". What is harder is taking a look at ourselves and taking responsibility for how we contribute to the problem too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The varieties of winter

Perhaps we need words for the seasons here on Bowen Island.  "Winter" isn't exactly accurate.  Since December 21 when Winter was supposed to have begun we have had the following kinds of days, among others:

  • Cold and clear days with no wind
  • Snow that falls in some places but rains in others
  • Southeasterly winds with rain.
  • Calm and cold everywhere except in the Queen Charlotte Channel where a Squamish wind one mile storm force wind is blowing with freezing spray.
  • Foogy to 100 meters above sea level with an inversion making it 10 degrees on top of the mountains.
  • Damp evenings that produce heavy hoarfrosts in the morning.
  • Nights when the owls call for joy.
  • Sunny and warm mornings when the winter wrens take a stab at their spring calls.
  • Heavy snow that falls and stick on the Douglas-firs and cedars and brings down the alders and rotten maples.
  • Quiet mornings when the towhees explore the underbrush.
  • Days when it rains so hard that the deer just stand in it looking miserable. 
  • Calm days where the ocean is like glass and you can here ravens calling from miles away.
It makes more sense around here to follow the old Celtic calendar which has just ticked over Imbolc on February 1, the beginning of spring.  It feels like that today, with southeasterly winds blowing and rain showers coming and going with patches of bright sky over the Sound.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

We love our herons

No bird gets more attention on Bowen Island then our herons.  One of the reasons that they get so much attention is that they regularly nest in the trees in Crippen Park near the library.  There is nothing more terrifying on a spring day then to see fights between hungry bald eagles and heron parents protecting their eggs.  The air fills with the sound of deep heron Groooooking and eagle shreiks.

But they are beautiful and iconic and i love them.  When I am out paddle boarding on Deep Bay I often share the afternoon with them, the two of us quietly standing on the water.

But there is another fights the herons are involved in.  They are involved in a fight for their survival.  The herons that live on Bowen are Coastal Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias fannini) a coastal subspecies that is protected under BC law.  Here are a set of documents related to their listing.

Here on Bowen Island, we got confused about these herons last year when Sue Ellen Fast reported breeding season had begun.  Janice Halligan did some research on the herons and uncovered all kinds of information.  She and Sue Ellen were having a good conversation about the implications of a ferry marshalling scheme that would build a road right through the heron rookery, in contravention of all kinds of regulations and guidelines.  Janice pinballed back and forth from link to link reading regulations and guidelines and planning advice and reporting on her findings and so on and concluded with a question that she asked Sue Ellen that never got answered.  The thread petered off with Janice continuing to find more questions but Sue Ellen was no longer around to answer.

The reason Sue Ellen didn't answer is because in the middle of the thread she left the Forum.  With no evidence at all, Andrew P. concluded that "There be no provincial or federal prohibiting (sic) BIM building a road as proposed in Plan Z."  He then lobbed out one of his common allegations of people spreading misinformation about the herons: 

"All development anywhere near the heron nests would/should take place off season and have as large as possible set backs. Signs could be placed along the loop road asking people to keep it down. Wonder if there are any signs along the park trails of that sort right now?  
This is the kind of thinking that appears to have been thwarted by misinformation on our responsibilities in relation to the herons."
Sue Ellen, who is a smart person and a nationally renowned naturalist, just walked away from that.  What can you do with someone who draws his own erroneous conclusions from a discussion and then accuses others of misinformation?  Especially as he Googled "Great Blue Heron" and found out that the birds weren't protected at all!

He googled the wrong species.  The Great Blue Heron in general is not protected in Canada, but the Coastla Blue Heron is.  And so he was really quite wrong on this.

But somehow it crept into the public consciousness that we had had a good old discussion on herons and the conclusion, laid bare by all the facts, was that the vast regulatory scheme that Canada and BC have to protect herons was a fiction.  Andrew posted today:

It’s one thing to express your opinion. It’s another thing to misrepresent the facts and the law, when you know or should know that what you are stating is incorrect. Of course I refer to the rules; regulations regarding development in the midst of “potential” or “historic” heron nesting locations.  
My opinion is that the signs were installed to lend credence to the patently false position that was promulgated as truth for so long, and was soundly debunked by Janice some while back. Go ahead and ask the GVRD guys who wanted the signs installed. I did.
And I guess all I am saying is that a) Janice did not debunk anything, she simply read widely and never made a conclusion and b) Andrew did make a conclusion by doing research that included Googling the wrong bird and c) turns out there are signs there after all and d) the "position" is not false.

I'm not posting on the forum anymore, but for my friends that read it, it's worth pointing out, if it matters to you, that Andrew is wrong about the herons, and those who have imagined that Janice concluded that the federal and provincial governments have no regulatory scheme that would prevent a road being put through the nesting area of a Blue Listed species are also wrong, both about Janice's conclusions and the regulatory framework.  She didn't debunk anything and she never claimed the certainty that Andrew ascribes to her.

Why does this matter?  Because people like Andrew have been using the heron discussion as an illustration of "fact based" decision making on Bowen Island.   The truth is that the heron debates contained all kinds of facts and in conclusion, it is clear that the Coastal Great Blue Heron is protected and there are guidelines and regulations (and even a local procedure) to comply with before you mess with them.  Janic herself never debunked anything, and nothing was shown to be false.  Andrew made some conclusions and labelled those that didn't agree with him as spreading "misinformation."

Council can make any decision it wants about ferry marshalling, but if they get fined for violating a species protection regulation, I wonder who will be invited to pay?  That s what experts are for: to help people make complicated decisions that are outside of their realm of experience.  Andrew is no expert on herons, and neither is Janice.  But at least she took the time to ask a resident expert, and respected her opinion.

(Edited to remove the surname of an individual who requested it.)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Underneath the Lintel is a masterpiece

Friday night we went up to the Tir Na Nog theatre school where Kingbaby Productions was mounting a new play, Underneath The Lintel.  David Cameron plays a Dutch librarian whose charming character seems firmly stuck in the middle of the 20th century.  Starting with a book that is returned 113 years overdue, the librarian becomes obsessed with a series of small clues that convince him he is on the trail of the legendary Wandering Jew.

I have seen David in probably 10 productions over the years and this is my favourite character.  The play has an edge of magical realism that requires the audience to be drawn in close.  the Librarian does this like a magician with intrigue and the slow exposition of the long chain of clues and evidence he has uncovered.  One by one small curios are produced from a trunk which move the story along from one improbable connection to the next.

As the story unfolds and goes deeper though, you begin to peer into the Librarians heart, and see the petty obsessions he holds, the regrets, the joys and the well meant intentions that have marked a life that culminates in this search.  David is magnificent at pulling us in, having spent months growing a proper vandyke goatee and hanging around Thuys Dhont, one of Bowen's ubiquitous Dutch ex pats.

The production runs next weekend as well, and then Kingbaby aim to tour the play on the Fringe circuit this year.  Go and see it if you can.  Even if you live in Vancouver, the play is over in time for you to return on the last ferry.  It's worth the trip to Bowen.