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Hatchery plan sparks debate

Gulf Islands Driftwood, Wednesday, February 26, 2003

By Gail Sjuberg

From a splashy gathering of people and placards outside Lions Hall, through hours of tense meetings on Friday and Saturday, the Walker Hook sablefish hatchery issue continued to galvanize community debate last week. With pressure from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to cough up a response to a 20-year lease application for eight hectares (20 acres) of land between landowner Henry Caldwell and the hatchery company, both the Salt Spring Local Trust Committee (LTC) and its Advisory Planning Commission (APC) were under the gun.

After much debate and intense pressure from some people to make a political statement by refusing the application, trustees Kimberly Lineger, Eric Booth and David Essig decided Saturday to go beyond the normal type of response by not formally approving or disapproving but communicating their feelings to the ALC. In addition to already-suggested staff recommendations on the need for an unstable slopes development permit or exemption, to consider sensitive bird nesting sites, and to prohibit placing buildings or structures on the environmentally sensitive Walker Hook tombolo, trustees will also advise the ALC that:

While the Salt Spring Land Use Bylaw (LUB) may allow use of the land for aquaculture, they are concerned the use may be inconsistent with nine parts and sections of the Trust Policy Statement, nine sections of the Salt Spring Official Community Plan (OCP) and one section of the LUB; and

Their recommendation "pertains solely to permission for a lease and does not pertain to permission to create a fee-simple lot."

In explaining his position, Booth said it was clear to him the hatchery would proceed whether or not the LTC rejected the application. The difference was that by responding the Trust would at least have a chance for some input and ensure Walker Hook tombolo protection for the 20-year duration of the lease.

The meeting turned on its head for a moment when chair Essig stated he disagreed with the Salt Spring trustees' position, saying he thought "taking no position is an opportunity foregone . . . I think it's time for the Islands Trust to take the heat from the provincial government on our stand on industrial farming in the Trust area." He called the tombolo protection clause "a form of political ransom" and said he was not convinced about the purity of the hatchery project's outflow.

However, when trustee Lineger said she would be willing to withdraw the motion if that's how Essig felt, the chair said she could not do that.

Lineger stressed the need for more work to be done on the issue of aquaculture on Trust islands, which would require a Trust-wide focus. As a first step she recommended the Trust executive committee write a letter to the provincial government asking for a Trust-wide exemption from considering aquaculture an accepted farm use under the Farm Practices Protection (Right to Farm) Act.

Booth also pointed to recent B.C. court cases where communities' OCPs were found to take precedence over provincial legislation, which could aid their argument.

If Saturday's LTC meeting could be considered sweat-inducing, the APC session the day before was a sauna in a crowded hall where people demanded detailed information about hatchery plans. The meeting was scheduled so APC members could make their recommendation to the LTC, but when they sat down they found themselves with barely more information than they had the previous week.

While a Sablefin Hatcheries Ltd. presentation was expected, hatchery proponent Gidon Minkoff said he was unaware of that expectation. But following a lengthy question-and-answer session between the public, APC and Minkoff, what is proposed for that site and the potential impacts were made somewhat more clear. (See separate story.)

But it wasn't enough information for APC members to feel comfortable about reaching a conclusion. They said they could not support the lease application because of "incomplete and conflicting information." The APC also recommended the LTC seek legal advice regarding grounds for refusing the lease application and organize a public meeting with provincial regulatory agencies involved in the hatchery project. The LTC followed the latter recommendation by directing staff to set up such a meeting. Legal issues are already being tackled by a non-government party.

Whether the Trust has the legal power to stop activities like a fish hatchery on ALR land has been asked by a group of citizens called Salt Spring Residents For Responsible Land Use. They have contracted the services of Woodward and Company in Victoria to provide a legal opinion on the matter. A firm representative attended the APC meeting.

Essig said the issue of aquaculture in the Trust area should be raised at the Trust Council meeting on Salt Spring next week.

The whole hatchery matter only fell into the Trust's public domain because Sablefin Hatcheries Ltd. wants a lease of more than three years in length with Caldwell, whose property is in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). When a lease of more than three years is requested on ALR land, ALC approval is required and the lease is treated more as a subdivision - although no separate fee-simple lot is created as a result.

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