A bed sitting in the corner of a room

Community Meeting for Cortes Zoning Bylaw Update

Around 60 people turned out for the Strathcona Regional District’s (SRD) zoning bylaw meeting in Mansons Hall at 1 PM on Wednesday, March 6. 

The meeting went very differently from how the SRD planned it. There was to have been a short presentation, after which participants were to have gathered around two maps and put sticky dots on the properties where the bylaws should be changed to allow for greater densification. Instead, this was a community conversation.

There was undoubtedly some confusion as to whether it should be a meeting where the community asked questions, or a forum for them to express opinions. 

A variety of perspectives were given: some pointed to the need for more housing; others suggested the first step should be determining what the island’s carrying capacity in terms of water and other resources. SRD staff members Annie Girdler and Meredith Starkey added their expertise.

A Squirrel Cove resident asked where people with specific local knowledge go to ensure their input had more weight than some sticky notes on a map, or one of many comments. 

Starkey replied, “All of the comments we receive have that weight, and that is what we’re hoping that either would go on a comment sheet, or it could be written on the map, or you can tell us or you can email us” 

Girdler added, “At the end of the day this is your document, as a community, and so it should reflect the needs of your community. It will be your main tool that allows you to implement your Official Community Plan, or your OCP as they’re sometimes called. They are not perfect, and in order to make them as functional as we can, they need to be updated every once in a while.”

There was a very different mood than what prevailed at Cortes Islands Housing Forum in December. As someone pointed out, this meeting was in the afternoon – when many people were at work. Also some of the strongest voices in favour of increased densification on select parcels – Regional Director Mark Vonesch, Sadhu Johnston and Sandra Wood from the Cortes Community Housing Society –  were not present. 

Starkey explained the reasons for what many perceived as haste. Cortes Island opted in to the provincial government’s Short-Term Rental Accommodations Act and there is a requirement that local governments update their zoning bylaw to accommodate small-scale, multi-unit housing requirements by June 30, 2024. She also stated that Cortes Island’s current OCP needs to be updated, but that could take another one or two years. 

Girdler: “Further amendments can always be made later on to realign your zoning bylaws with your new OCP. Another reason to update your zoning bylaw is to correct regulations that either don’t have legal jurisdiction under the SRD, or that reference legislation that doesn’t exist anymore. This will help reduce confusion and potential for conflict. Lastly, the current Zoning By law doesn’t appropriately address the modern challenges that communities are facing.” 

Meredith Starkey: “One thing to keep in mind is that the current residential zone, at the one hectare size, is the smallest lot that Island Health will permit residential development on.”

Annie Girdler: “Island Health regulates lot size and since Cortes doesn’t currently have a community water, or sewer system, these densities are essentially already at their maximum capacity.”

There were 82 Short Term Rentals on Cortes Island when the Housing Needs Report was compiled. In a recent interview, Director Vonesch stated they bring in between $1.25 million and $1.5 million to the island’s economy. This suggests the average short term rental may bring in something like $15,000 to $18,000 a year, and a significant chunk of that would go out to pay expenses.   

One of the three owners at the meeting said this provided sufficient income to make it through the winter. Another described her short term rental as a tent.  

Starkey pointed out that they are non-compliant because this has been a commercial use and there is no commercial zoning on Cortes Island. Under the Short Term Rental Act, people can use their principal residence plus one secondary suite or accessory dwelling unit for short term rentals.  

Someone asked for a definition of principal residence. 

Meredith Starkey: “I don’t have any legislation on that one. Ultimately to meet a principal residence requirement, it has to be your principal residence. You have to see how it’s defined in the legislation. I think it’s  51% of the year. If you are qualifying for the homeowner grant on that property, I think it would probably meet the requirement.”

Question: “Who is going to be enforcing the bylaws. Will a bylaw officer be checking all the properties? There’s a lot of illegal suites and cabins, but most of those are housing full time residents who have low incomes and can’t afford better places to stay.”

Starkey replied, “Bylaws are enforced on a complaint driven basis, so unless the community complains there wouldn’t be enforcement action. Even if there is a complaint, it’s up to the board to determine the degree of enforcement. Usually the complaints that we get are about something like location, maybe someone has built a cottage on the stream bank. Also since every property is permitted a cottage, most of those cottages are probably compliant. We don’t go around and say, ‘oh, those  are cottages that are non compliant.’”

Several people suggested that Cortes should start with an ecological study to determine the state of Cortes Island’s aquifer, where the habitat is sensitive. 

“I think it’s hard to actually look at maps and think about density without looking at what the land can support.”

A couple of people stated that Cortes Island’s existing community plan already identified areas for further densification. 

Someone replied that the OCP was drawn up in 2012 and there have been changes since then. For example, several of the shallow wells in Squirrel Cove which have previously had major issues, stopped recharging last summer. Basil Creek has dried up to a trickle the last two summers. These are surface water issues, which experts say can usually be corrected if the community is willing, but it would be nice to have this addressed before the land is zoned for more dwellings.  

Helen Hall, Executive Director of the Friends of Cortes Island, pointed out that her organization has maps of the island’s sensitive ecosystems and cultural sites.  

A Whaletown resident suggested that if we’re not going to permit people to rent out their summer homes during the winter, we will not be able tio increase density.

Girdler responded that winters last longer than three months. “Anything over 90 days is not covered by the Short Term Rental Accommodations Act. It is considered residential.”  

Just prior to the meeting, a Cortes Island resident pointed out a number of parcels where further development might take place. Part of the community forest lands in Seaford has been zoned residential for decades.   The first step would need to be negotiations with the Ministry of Forests, Klahoose First Nation and the Cortes Forest General Partnership. There is also an undeveloped ‘Rural Residential’ parcel in Mansons Landing, and 80 acres that were purchased from Weyerhauser in Whaletown. 

My informant decided that it wasn’t the time to mention this, but it is noteworthy that in addition to sensitive areas there are also parcels that may be ideal for development.  

Within minutes of the meeting ending, someone suggested we should start by asking if there is a need for more housing, and work from there. 

According to the SRD Housing Needs Report for Cortes Island another 30 houses are needed. 

A man with 5 people living on his property, alluded to a population that may not show up in reports like this. 

“Nothing personal, but I don’t really care about the density stuff because there are so many people here that have nowhere to live, okay?  As you all know, there’s empty, huge houses all over this island,” he said. 

The 2021 census lists 804 housing units, 246 of which were not occupied on May 11 of that year.

The SRD staff report for Cortes Island’s proposed dog control service states Cortes has 761 ‘resident’ electors and 200 ‘non-resident’ electors. It also cites a BC Housing Assessment document indicating 148 of the ‘non-residents’ live outside British Columbia.   

At the Zoning meeting, there were questions about BC’s Vacancy Tax. 

Starkey explained that is a provincial tax and not enforced by the SRD.

In a recent interview Sadhu Johnston explained that when he was the City Manager of Vancouver, they raised $30 million to $40 million a year through the Empty Homes Tax. 

According to the BC Government, this is a “tax designed to turn vacant homes into housing for people in British Columbia, and ensure foreign owners and those with primarily foreign income contribute fairly to B.C.’s tax system.” 

The funds collected through this tax are to be used for affordable housing projects. 

Many people at the zoning meeting seemed to think that Cortes island’s population could dramatically increase in the near future.

The island’s population growth rate has actually been modest. According to census data, there were 1,007 people in 2011 and 1,055 in 2021. The Housing Needs Report for Cortes projects suggests a further population increase of 5 people by 2031.

The Housing Report also suggests the neighbouring population of Area C will probably decline over the upcoming decade, though only by 10 people. 

These numbers do not necessarily indicate what might happen if there was more housing. The SRD’s rural population is expected to grow 7% between 2021 and 2031. If a similar growth rate took place on Cortes Island, there would be 1,129 year round residents. 

Links of Interest: 

Update: Regional Director Robyn Mawhinney clarified a couple of points and these updates have been dropped into the text on March 12.

Top photo credit: Short term rentals can be anything from a bedroom to a house – Photo by Matt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

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3 thoughts on “Community Meeting for Cortes Zoning Bylaw Update”

  1. Thank you for publishing this for those of us who could not make it to the meeting.

  2. that pic pointing at a seaford lot look like the gorge. ?? could you clarify?

    1. Yes, I got my photos mixed up. That was the former Weyerhaeuser property in Whaletown.

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