Looking at the U shaped table and empty chairs in an empty

Mark Vonesch’s First Year In Office: Things ‘Accomplished’ and ‘In Process’

Mark Vonesch is very passionate about Cortes Island and his activities as Regional Director. If this were a video, rather than a radio broadcast, you would see this it in his facial expressions. There is a hint of this passion in the words he chose and the tone of his voice. 

Cortes Currents asked him for a recap of this past year and what to expect going forward into 2024.  

Mark Vonesch being sworn in as Regional Director on Nov 8, 2022 – submitted photo

“It’s been a big year. It’s been my first year in office and obviously a lot of learning. I  managed to get quite a few things done. One of the things with the government is that they usually don’t move as fast  as people would like, certainly not as fast as I would like, so lots of things are in progress as well,” he replied.

“I’ve been really proud to represent this community.”

“There’s a lot of people on Cortes that make this island work and I’m a small part of it. Everything from: the healthcare providers; the fire department; educators; people leading and working and volunteering and nonprofits;  all the different businesses that employ people and provide economic activity on Cortes, waste management collection and the waste management center.”

“Being the Regional Director for Cortes, I was assigned to the Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital Board, the Comox Strathcona Waste Management Board, the (SRD) First Nations Relations Committee, the School District 72 Liaison Committee, Electoral Area Services Committee (EASC), which is a committee of all the rural electoral areas and of course the Strathcona Regional District Board. So sitting  on five committees and boards, and each of those committees has  a slightly different mandate,  focus and powers.”

“Some people think that being the Regional Director of Cortes, I get to decide what happens on Cortes.  That’s a misconception because the reality is I’m one of 14 people on the Strathcona Regional District Board. So if there’s something that we want to see happen on Cortes, my job is to convince at least 7 other people, so there’s 8 of us voting in favor of moving that forward. No matter how good the idea is, if I can’t convince 8 of us  to vote for it, then it doesn’t happen.  I think that’s one of the biggest learnings and realizations. My job isn’t just to come up with good ideas, listen to the community and try to move things forward, it’s really about bringing things to the board in a way that gets them passed. My job is to represent Cortes and it is also to represent the Strathcona Regional District as a whole. It is having those conversations with fellow directors, aligning myself  with them and working as a team to make  good decisions for the Strathcona Regional District.”

CC: Aren’t there a number of things that the Electoral Area Services Committee decides?

Mark Vonesch: “EASC makes decisions that get referred to the board.”  

CC: Then the board passes it?

Mark Vonesch: “Then the board approves it.  Yes, you want to get things passed at EASC. Generally if things are passing at EASC, the board supports those decisions as well, but really, it does come down to the board.”  

CC: Aren’t there votes where it’s just the EASC members who get to vote, and the rest of the  board will give advice, but they’re not allowed to vote? 

Mark Vonesch: “Yes, specifically land use decisions, zoning and subdivision.  Those things are decided by EASC,  which is Gerald Wally (of Area A), myself, Rob Mawhinney (of Area C) and John Rice (of Area D). The other things – grants in aid, the gas tax, bylaws – those are all voted on by the full board.”

CC: So what have you been able to accomplish this past year? 

“What I’m really proud of is that most of the things that I’ve wanted to get done, and I think what the community has wanted from me, we’ve been able to get done.”

“In my very first meeting when we were supposed to get inaugurated and you swear that you’re going to uphold the oaths  and you become a Regional Director – I asked  the board to support a short term rental tax on Cortes.”

“For the board to provide a letter of support for Cortes Island’s application to the MRDT tax that would allow us to collect 3%  from short term rentals, hotels and Airbnbs, and have that money go directly towards housing.  That came into effect on July 1st.  The Housing Society received their first cheque for I think close to $5,000 for the first months of collection, which is significant for a small nonprofit.”

“What I was hearing from the community before I was elected is housing is key. Businesses need people and places for their employees to stay. Young people are having to leave the island because  they’re struggling to find housing. Businesses are struggling to run at capacity because they can’t find enough housing for their staff.  Many people we know are disproportionately affected. More marginalized groups on the island are struggling with housing.  Being the first community in all of British Columbia to have that tax go entirely to housing, directly back into our community, is something I’m really proud of.”

“I think it sets a tone for the island and says that housing is important. It’s important for us to make a difference. The nice thing about that tax is that we are asking tourists to pay a small amount when they book their Airbnbs and short term rentals and hotels. They pay an extra $5 or $6 a night, and that goes towards getting housing built on Cortes.”

“I maybe went in a bit naively, like let’s do something on the first day, but I think it’s a good example of how you’ve got to put yourself out there and ask for what you need. Good things can happen. I was really proud of the press coverage this received, because I think it sets an example for other communities across BC that things can be done a bit differently.”

“The housing forum in December, and the survey that went out, built on some of the previous surveys that the regional district and other groups have done on the island and really gave myself and the community some direction on the way to go and shed more light on the challenges. I won’t go too much further into that, but my job is to listen to the community.  Doing a survey and getting 265 people to respond  is huge. 72% of people who filled out the survey are in support of densification. I think that speaks to people’s need  to make more housing happen. I’m really excited about moving forward and helping carry out the will of the people on that.”

“On Cortes, compared to other cities,  homelessness and housing challenges can often be hidden and what that survey showed was that there’s housing available in Cortes.  If there was the right situation, and maybe some sort of intermediary,  there would be more rentals available because there’s a lot of people that have the housing that are scared to rent to people.”

“There’s an opportunity there, low hanging fruit, but that survey  also showed there’s a lot of homeowners living in a place  that  is inadequate in some ways: doesn’t have heat, doesn’t have bathing facilities, or water.”

“The housing challenges aren’t just with people looking for rentals. There’s also housing challenges for people that already own.  If there’s a way that we can connect those homeowners with some financing that would allow them to make improvements in their property, they have a better home and then they could also potentially provide housing for other people.”

“People might be aware of a property on Beasley Road, that gravel pit kind of area past the school. That is a provincially owned piece of property.  It is in our downtown core of Mansons. There’s room for densification there, so what I’ve done is approach the province, following up on the previous director’s work of asking them  if we can transition that property to be owned by the community for us to do some sort of housing there. That could be a tiny house park or a development that would allow people to come together and  put housing on it.”

“Regarding the housing solutions, I can’t stress this enough: it’s got to be multifaceted.  What am I hearing from people? There’s some people that want tiny houses and a tiny house village. It sounds like a great idea, but for some people that’s not a solution.  We need to look at affordable land ownership. The province does own property on Cortes and this is one of those properties that I think is an ideal location that could be used  for some smart development.”

“So I’m in the process  of working with the ministry in charge of that and having them start the process of figuring out how we can transition that into the hands  of Cortes Islanders in a public way. It wouldn’t be a business that runs it, but some sort of nonprofit.”

CC: What about potential environmental impacts of adding more housing?

Mark Vonesch: ”I think it’s really important that yes, we need some more density, but we do it  in a pragmatic way. In a way that is sensitive to the ecosystems and particularly watersheds and our aquifer. So one of the things I’ve done recently with the Cortes Housing Society is we’ve approached a firm in Nanaimo that does aquifer and watershed health assessments.  I’m in the process  of working with the Housing Society to see if we can gather some funding for this study to be complete. It would give us just  a better assessment  of what is our aquifer holding capacity and modemodellingling it with climate change. What is the health of our watersheds and how can we make smart planning decisions based on that?”

“It’s really easy to fall into what  lots of other places have done where they just say yes to more development rather than focusing on how we can do this smartly.”

“We know that  the most  ecologically smart development  is densification, rather than having everybody be on 10 acre lots. We can densify certain areas and be conscious of wildlife corridors and the ecosystems that  we’re a part of.  I think that’s the kind of densification that people want on Cortes. So that’s another water issue that I’m moving forward on and is in progress.”  

“What else do I have here on  my list? There’s  literally  thousands of decisions I’ve made  but those are some of the bigger ones  that are concerning Cortes and things that I’m still making progress on.”

CC: What else has been done for Cortes? 

Mark Vonesch: I am part of the First Nations Relations Committee. “When I first got in there, the SRD was figuring out  what  their land acknowledgement was going to be, and I was surprised not to see the Tla’amin Nation listed.  I made a request  and asked  that we do some staff investigation into the idea of including Tla’amin, because I think anybody on Cortes knows that Klahoose, Tla’amin and Homalco  are the nations whose traditional  unceded territory that we live on. My motion was able to eventually bring Tla’amin into the land acknowledgement, which  I think is important on the truth and reconciliation front.”

“We get a certain amount of gas tax funding directed for infrastructure projects on Cortes.  I was able to use some of that gas tax funding to  put a new water system in at the Whaletown Community Centre (Gorge Hall) this year. Something that  allows them to stay open, serve the public and be such a great, amazing space  for so many events that they hold. I’ve also put in requests for gas tax money to be used for finishing the heat pump installations at the Manson’s Hall. They’re still running on a so-called backup furnace there.  If we can get that hall completely heated by heat pumps, it’s going to save on operating costs, ultimately impacting the tax requisition we need because running a furnace is expensive.  The other request that I put in is that funding be used to create a preliminary road for Rainbow Ridge.”

“One of the solutions to housing is getting Rainbow Ridge built. So getting the short term rental tax going there,  ideally getting this gas tax funding for the road and  create some momentum that they can use in their recent applications to the BC government.”

“As a lot of people know, the B. C. government provided regional districts and municipalities and cities with growing community funds this year.  The Strathcona Regional District received 2 million dollars and we were able to direct $300,000 of that towards the Cortes Fire Department for equipment. So that saves on our tax requisition that we need to make to pay for that equipment.  As everybody knows,  fire departments are expensive, the equipment’s expensive and we need a strong fire department. So to be able to direct some funding there to save on our tax requisition and make sure we’re in a strong place, was really important.”

Other things that have happened this year:

“I mentioned that I sit on the waste management board, which handles all the waste management in Comox and Strathcona. There are huge opportunities here as far as diverting waste from landfills. I put a motion forward that was supported by the boards  to look at expanding free stores and reuse opportunities across the district. There’s a lot of useful materials to go into the landfills that we can divert.”

“I was nominated to be the chair of the School District 72 liaison committee.  This is a committee that brings together SRD staff and directors along with the school district trustee  and staff and decision makers from the school district. It really asks the question, ‘what can we do to work together  to solve the challenges that we face?’ We had our first meeting in the Fall. We’ve had  two meetings so far.  I’m excited about the potential there because I think education is a key part of what makes a community great.”

“Just seeing the growth at the Cortes Island School, going from 55 registered students last year to 78 this year is huge.  In order to make Cortes more livable for families and for young people, we need a good school. I’m really excited  to have played a small part in encouraging the new principal (Mike Datura) to apply, and for the progress that’s been happening there. Obviously, again, lots of other great people playing a role in that, the parent advisory committee and  all the staff there.”

CC: The next two items are proposed bylaws  that the electoral areas service committee will be discussing today (Wed, Jan 10, 2024).   

Mark Vonesch: “Last summer when the province lifted the fire ban on Cortes,  even though we hadn’t received any rain, it was a huge concern for a lot of people and myself.” 

“I discovered that the only way for us to override a  BC province fire ban lifting is for us to have our own bylaw. So I immediately  asked  the SRD staff, with the support of the board,  to create a bylaw that’s in process right now.” 

“I’m going to be looking at the next draft at this next meeting. What that does is  if the province of B. C. lifts the fire ban, then SRD staff  check in with our fire chief, and we make a decision that’s based on the reality of what’s on the ground here, rather than us being pushed into this broader Sunshine Coast Fire District.”

“With climate change and fires being more of a concern, I think that’s a really important initiative. We have a lot of tourists that visit us in the summer and  I just can’t imagine what would happen if some naive tourist starts a campfire and it gets away from them. Fire could be really devastating. We’re going to have this bylaw in place by this summer.”

“The dog control bylaw that’s going to be coming into decision-making in the next couple of months is for Cortes to decide. People are very passionate on both sides of this issue. There’s people that don’t want any bylaw connected  to dogs that are very passionate about it and there’s people that are very passionate that there should be a bylaw. There were some really tragic dog issues on Cortes and that  prompted  a petition that went out and was presented to the SRD board. Some people aren’t going to be happy no matter what happens here. What I’ve done is ask staff to prepare a potential dog control service.”

The next decision that the board’s going to be making is whether to move forward with this potential service, meaning do we go back to the community and ask for consent? So it would go through an alternative approval process,  where  if 10% of people write in against it, then it wouldn’t happen.  It  allows me to get a measurement and the SRD to get a measurement  on what the feel is on Cortes for a dog control service.”

“If a dog control service does come into play, I think what I’ve heard from the community is that they’d want something that ensures that dogs are on leash or under control in public areas.  That there is some sort of way  to deal with  dogs that are repeat offenders that are doing dangerous things or running deer,  or running other animals.”  

“Right now there is no recourse. The only thing somebody can do  is personally sue someone.  If there was a bylaw in place,  people could call the police and the police could potentially deal with it. Of course, like with any sort of bylaw that has enforcement, there’s costs involved. It’s going to be a decision for Cortes to make around whether those costs  are worth it,  or whether they want  a dog control service at all.”

“I have a bottled water bylaw in the works. This is working with Director Mawhinney on Quadra Island and Director Rice in Area D, around  protecting our water supply. Looking at the Southern Gulf Islands that have run out of water in the summer and had to ship in water, I don’t want to see that happen in Cortes. I’m just  trying to close a loop. Right now somebody could start a bottled water company or start shipping water and extracting large amounts of water from the ground that isn’t for personal use and making a commercial enterprise out of it.”

CC: So moving forward, what does 2024 look like?   

Mark Vonesch: “This year, I want to increase engagement with Cortes.”

“I’d really like  to have the Advisory Planning Committee formalized. That’s a committee that comes together and provides advice to me on planning issues and decisions on Cortes Island.”

“The housing forum and the survey was a great way to bring people together to talk about problems and solutions. I want to do more of that.  I really want to represent the will of people in Cortes  and make sure that people feel heard. Again emphasizing the realization that  I’ve said multiple times, especially when I first started thinking about running, that no matter what we do – everyone’s not going to get their own way.  That’s kind of the reality of politics and part of what I’ve really loved about this job is talking to everybody, whether they agree with me or not. I like to hear the diverse opinions and really try to move things forward that best represent the majority of people on this island. Knowing when there is a majority around an issue, there’s also a minority that can be quite strongly opinionated against it.”

“Keeping me informed with your ideas and opinions, are really important. So I want to increase that in the next year and continue making sure that people have a voice in their government.”

CC: How do you feel about the world that we’re moving into in 2024?   

“I feel hopeful.”  

“I don’t feel necessarily hopeful about the state of the world. I think we’re in a rough challenging place with housing, with climate change, but I am hopeful about this island and the amount of people that care here, the amount of people that are working  on projects and making a difference that I can help bolster in my capacity  as the regional director is  incredible.”

“I always said that I think Cortes can be a place that other people can look to as an example of how things are going to be done. When I’m making decisions, I’m bringing people together and trying to move things forward. I’m also thinking about how we can be an example for other places  that are looking for solutions to  these issues that are common  in communities across the province, across the country.”

“I think Cortes has always been a place of education, whether you just go out and walk in the forest and learn from nature, or you’re attending one of the institutions or programs that happen on Cortes. This is a place where people come, to not only vacation  and relax in the summers, but it’s also a place that is a stepping stone (or a trampoline) where ideas can be born and come to fruition and be an example for other communities.”

 “I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Top image credit: The SRD Boardroom – courtesy SRD website

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