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General News · 30th November 2016
Richard Lawton
When I last looked at Statistics Canada data a few years ago, the mean annual household income for Canadian families was $73,000 and they spent $33,000 on basic needs (shelter, food, transportation and heat).
The average reported family income on Cortes was $23,000! That is one third of what Canada earns. Our local income is substantially less than Canada spends on necessities, and goods cost the same here.

Here is approximate market value for a small Cortes home on a couple of plain acres:
Raw Land $100,000 (43%)
Services (well, septic, hydro) $50,000 (22%)
Buildings $80,000 (35%)
$230,000 (100%)

That’s an empty home with no furniture and appliances, and to qualify for a mortgage we would have to earn more than $40,000 a year. There is a huge gap between local income and the cost of home ownership, and no permanence without some form of ownership.

That is why most of the local population is gone, and why there is a constant turnover of new people. Almost no one has bought a home with local earnings in decades.

What is the solution?

‘Mini houses’?
No, because that only reduces building cost, leaving nearly $200,000.

How about high density mini houses?
Sorry, but no again. If there had not been huge donations and grants, which cannot be duplicated, rent for the Seniors’ Homes on Beasely Road would be more than $1,000 a month just to recover cost. And the land cost was zero! (it was donated).

Let’s look at this from another direction. Suppose we start with 100 acres of RU land with a market value of $400,000. It can be subdivided to create ten new 10 acre lots, each for 2 families (a house and a cottage). So currently, the 100 acres can create homes for 20 families without rezoning, providing we subdivide and spend a fortune on paved roads, hydro, drilled wells, surveying and bureaucracy.

(The development cost to create 30 lots at Siskin Lane was $1,500,000, or $50,000 per lot, and it was $70,000 per lot for the most recent subdivision near the Whaletown ferry due to rocky terrain.)

So we begin with 100 acres worth $400,000, and each 10 acres is worth $40,000. After we subdivide the value of each new lot has jumped to $120,000! (because it cost $50,000 to subdivide plus selling expense plus the owner’s profit).

What happens if the same families occupy the 100 acres without subdividing? Each 10 acres now costs $40,000 with huge additional benefits and savings:
- expensive roads become inexpensive driveways;
- other needless cost and bureaucracy is gone;
- services can be shared;
- improvements can be delayed until income becomes available;
- loan interest is minimised, and so on.

Homes can be added in the time honoured manner that served generations of Islanders; first live in a trailer while building a cabin... that proves to be inadequate... and then with improved construction skill and knowledge, use inexpensive local materials to build one of the rustic homes that give Cortes its unique character and appeal.

What’s this means is impossible to achieve home ownership at $230,000 has fallen to well under $100,000 (in most cases a long way under). Better local earnings are still needed, but this is a major and necessary step to make makes Cortes residents stable and permanent again.

- Substantially lower cost per family.
- Much of the initial expense can be distributed over several years.
- Much lower cost of borrowing and lower income is needed to qualify.
- No excessive road requirements.
- All unnecessary cost and bureaucracy is avoided.
- Large separation of water and waste disposal with potential for sharing for even greater health/cost benefits.
- Unused portions of individual lots become large preserved common areas.
- Layout can be as clustered or private as residents desire.
- No adverse effect on property value (Tiber Bay and Redlands are proof of this).
- Fair, almost identical taxes that reflect actual land and improvement values.
- Improves skills, community values and earning potential.
- Stability and future for current residents.
- A future for the Island’s kids in their own community.

- Slower, less professional start.
- Requires landowner good will and some sacrifice of potential profit.
- Residents are responsible for upkeep of roads, common areas and all shared facilities.
- It’s own success may increase its value too much over time.
- Savings are only sufficient on large parcels that can create many lots.
- Limited supply of large parcels.
- Still requires major improvement in quantity and quality of local earnings.
- Any limitations, restrictions and rezoning requirements will kill landowner participation.

Here is the OCP instruction that tells us to allow the same number of dwellings as if the land was subdivided:
“To allow for the grouping of dwellings on one parcel, following appropriate zoning density provisions, but without subdivision, in order to foster the protection of the environment and provide for affordable housing.”

And here is the Condition of Use in each zone of the Zoning Bylaw:
“For each additional [2.5 or 5 or 10] acres of land area ... one additional dwelling shall be permitted to a maximum of [3 or 5] dwellings per lot...”

It is very easy to accomplish. Just remove the words “to a maximum of x dwellings per lot” and it’s done. The number of dwellings is now the same as if the land was subdivided. There is no change in population or density.

NOTHING else is needed (or acceptable, other than a minor change to the number of employees in home businesses to reflect the increased number of families.)

The folks at Tiber Bay pointed the way in the 1980’s when 13 families occupied 130 acres of RU land, respecting the Zoning Bylaw except they didn’t subdivide. When the Regional District objected they made such a hell of a noise that what they had done became an instruction in our OCP to create affordability.

Two decades of murky politics have clouded and hidden the issue. There has never been official investigation and open public discussion.

Why? In a nutshell, a desire to create high density housing combined with an ability to sway Regional Directors has successfully avoided public attention. The underlying reason is multiple dwellings on large parcels would remove the ability to control high density development!

I am not making this stuff up. There have been many examples and several different forms of cover up over the years. One deserves special attention because it gave an unbiased glimpse of the community’s receptivity.

The 1998 - 2002 Bylaw update commenced with a year of secret APC review meetings behind closed doors. It was so secret that when I asked for a copy of the draft, what arrived three months late after considerable insistence, was an index and skeleton zone listing with all the useful pages missing, prepared and stapled together under instructions by the Regional District staff with a hand written note from our Regional Director that said “Richard, as requested”. He then asked a committee to “improve what the APC had done”, refusing to give a straight answer when asked how much notice would be taken of the result. The 14 volunteers was an amazingly balanced representation of all aspects of life on Cortes, from left to right, wealthy to just getting by, waterfront palace owner to renter, youthful to retired, tree hugger to tree cutter and so on. The multiple dwelling issue was explored in depth. There was unanimous support - not one dissenting voice when a vote was held! The manipulated APC removed everything the committee had done. The multiple dwelling proposal, intended for community discussion, was removed on the ridiculous premise of “protecting Islanders from landowners”! Public Meetings were avoided in favour of one presentation of a draft that contained no mention of multiple dwellings or any of the committee’s work. Despite loud objections that rejected one Public Hearing and threatened another it was adopted with an undertaking to create zones that addressed affordability, and this was actively suppressed and avoided for the rest of the Director’s term.

Different, but equally devious and effective tactics were employed in the 2009 - 2012 OCP update.

The majority of APC members (including myself from 2002 until the 2005 election) are well intentioned people who are not corrupt, but two things have contributed to biased outcomes; 1. appointment of people who lean the same way, with none who would oppose, and 2. leading them astray with silly, but convincing arguments.

Did you notice the shuffle of people just ahead of announcing the current Bylaw update, and the growing rush to keep things moving?

Some personal notes:

I own a considerable amount of undeveloped land that is zoned for residential use, purchased long ago with a sincere hope that it would benefit the Cortes community. I still own it. Other than gifting land to the Fire Department long ago, there has been minimal community benefit. Why?

My ability to trust the honesty and impartiality of local government was ruined in 1996 by claims of “sewage problems” when the 51 acres at Manson’s was rezoned. When a professional study proved there was no problem they shifted the claim to “possible pollution of Hague Lake” and again refused to admit they were acting on conjecture when a second study proved this was even more ludicrous. Then our Regional Director tried to create obstacles based on the “concerns” of his APC!

I am not making this up. It happened. It made me very aware and wary of underhanded motives, but it took several more years to discover who was hiding behind the various Regional Directors pulling the strings.

Nothing has been done to restore my confidence and regain trust. The result is I will not rezone property or cooperate with anything designed to suppress affordability. I suspect many landowners who have experienced similar behaviour or observed it feel the same.

In Summary:
Removing the cost of subdivision and creating value added earnings from the forest are the two single most important issues facing Cortes residents who do not have a government pay cheque or off-Island income.

A full, unhurried collection of facts by an unbiased group of Islanders similar to the 14 volunteers long ago (Not the APC!), presented openly and fully for public comment and discussion is needed. I am confident that this will at last produce an appropriate conclusion.