Our Experience Running Up Against A Broken Local System While Running a Beloved Local Business – The Treehouse Cafe.

By Mark and Terena LeCorre – owners of The Tree House Cafe

When we moved to Salt Spring ten years ago we bought a charming, iconic one of a kind local treasure in the Tree House Cafe. We also bought a business that needed much repair and upgrading. There were many things that were falling apart, but the opinion we heard from many long time locals was that any work we did could cause us trouble.

“Don’t fix anything. Don’t make anything better. If you do any number of local government agencies could come down on you and you will have less than when you started”  

We chose not to give in to fear and did what we could to save a crumbling cottage and to make the patio better for our customers. As we did we could see why we were told to leave things alone as things are rarely straightforward or clearly defined here.

The lane way next to the Tree House is a good example of this. It is controlled by MOTI next to the Tree House, the Harbour Authority towards the dock with bits of Mouat’s property here and there. We received verbal permission from Mouat’s and MOTI to use the space and that was that. It’s been suggested that we have gotten a free ride by not paying for the lane all these years. We would have loved to be able to pay rent and have some assurances, but there was no way to do this. To even bring the subject up seemed to be taboo.

In early 2014 a survey was done indicating the Harbour Authority (HASSI) property line was further towards us than had been previously thought. In June of that year we were given legal notice of trespass and told to vacate by the end of the season.

Issues with HASSI not withstanding, the past few years have showed us much about the shortcomings of our local governance.

Are these things signs that our current governance is working?  A boardwalk unfinished for decades. The Fulford Inn is a parking lot. The Vesuvius Pub sits forever empty. No more Laundromat. Salt Spring Roasting Company moved to Richmond. The Tree House in limbo. Ten years and still no new ball diamonds or soccer fields. Businesses and individuals afraid to make improvements to their property. These things are all indications of a system of governance that is not working for a great many islanders.

When this dispute came up there was no local government to turn to. We went to our two Trustees, our CRD director, our MP and our MLA. All of them expressed support, but each of them was unable do anything. It seemed it was always someone else’s “department.”  It took almost a year before a friend told us that Robin Williams at the CRD Transportation Commission (SSITC) might be someone we should talk to.  It turns out that this “was his department” and he was very helpful and effective. Our question is why did no one know this? Why weren’t we directed to speak with the SSITC when we approached one of our five locally elected representatives?  It appears that our local governance is so complicated that even our elected representatives don’t understand how it works.

June of last year MOTI, FLNRO, DFO and the CRD met and decided the best solution to this issue would be transferring the land from the parking lot to the boardwalk to local control. This has not happened yet. MOTI is leasing a portion to the CRD (not a transfer as was agreed, but a lease for a fair bit of money) and the other portion is controlled by HASSI still. The Tree House has short-term leases from both parties for use of the land, but where are things with the original agreement? This issue is much bigger than the Tree House, but under our current system of governance this may never happen. It shouldn’t take years of protests, petitions and media coverage to get results. As soon as the noise stops, our local government (in this case the CRD) with its limited resources moves on.

The CRD is based in Victoria. When a local issue comes up we are lost in the vastness of a huge bureaucracy. It took us a while to realize that when we were dealing with local CRD issues that we were dealing with the CRD in Victoria, not CRD on Salt Spring.

When our issue in the laneway happened we immediately thought that it might be easier to move our seating to the east side of the restaurant towards Mouat’s. Surely moving to private land would be easier than dealing with a half dozen provincial and federal agencies. Not on Salt Spring. The plan was to rebuild the patio with increased year-round covered seating and to build a new building next to the cottage with more kitchen and storage space and more bathrooms. Year round jobs, year round music, money invested in local construction, Ganges beautification. The Tree House is in the official community plan as an example of how a Salt Spring business should look. Seemed like a no brainer. Space doesn’t permit all the details, but after a couple of years and one last local government decision, our landlord decided chances of approval were too slim and too costly to move forward. In another community this might seems strange, but we have seen time and time again local business spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to get permission to improve their business (see Salt Spring Coffee and others) only to be rejected. “Don’t fix any thing, don’t make anything better”

Are these things signs that our current governance is working?  A boardwalk unfinished for decades. The Fulford Inn is a parking lot. The Vesuvius Pub sits forever empty. No more Laundromat. Salt Spring Roasting Company moved to Richmond. The Tree House in limbo. Ten years and still no new ball diamonds or soccer fields. Businesses and individuals afraid to make improvements to their property. These things are all indications of a system of governance that is not working for a great many islanders.

We have an important decision to make this week. Please vote. Be informed and don’t base your decisions on fear. The no side is repeating the same worst-case scenario. We are not going to wake up one day to find our new locally elected government made up of our friends and neighbours have paved paradise and put up a parking lot. I would hope that we have learned from our neighbour to the south that playing on people’s fears and repeating something over and over again and does not make something true.

We are voting for representative democracy. Throughout history people have fought to get this kind of governance. It has become the norm in the free world. It is so important that the Islands Trust Act made sure that every island could choose to have a municipal government within the Trust.

Our family moved here ten years ago this week to be part of something.  We moved here because in about 15 minutes we realized that the people here make this an amazing community. People care about each other and look after each other.

But it’s ok to think you live in an amazing place and also to embrace the possibility that we can make it better. Being a municipality will not fix all our problems. But it will give us the opportunity for Salt Springers to work towards solutions for our problems together here on Salt Spring.  On September 9 vote for hope, not with fear.

 

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