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Nerys Poole, a retired lawyer and former municipal councillor, says private docks are “the most heart-breaking” part of the new development. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)
Nerys Poole, a retired lawyer and former municipal councillor, says private docks are “the most heart-breaking” part of the new development. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)

Development, conservation clash on B.C.’s idyllic Bowen Island Add to ...

Nerys Poole began visiting Bowen Island with her family in the mid-1960s and became a full-time “islander” about 10 years ago.

Like many on Bowen – just a 20-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver – she particularly enjoyed the rugged, rocky shorelines of Cape Roger Curtis on the southwest coast of the 52-square-kilometre island. In the summer, Ms. Poole, a 70-year-old retired lawyer and former municipal councillor, would bring her grandchildren to play on a beach nestled between rocky outcroppings scattered with storm-tossed logs.

But she doesn’t come to the beach much any more, she says, pointing to an enormous private dock roughly 90 metres long and several metres above the water, which juts out into the rough waters of the Georgia Strait.

“This dock is the most heart-breaking,” Ms. Poole says, showing with a sweep of her arm how the massive dock now dominates the view from the beach. “It’s not that everybody [on Bowen] is anti-development. It’s that it needs to be done with respect for what Bowen has.”

That dock – one of three private docks already built along the previously-pristine cape – is simply the most visible sign of an increasingly bitter battle that has now ended up in a provincial court. The long-lasting feud has pitted long-time islanders and the municipal council against the project’s backers: a Hong Kong-born Vancouver developer and his partner, as well as a Chinese billionaire, who teamed up to buy and develop more than 600 acres of land on Bowen.

The conflict is a microcosm of the frequent tension between development and conservation efforts here on British Columbia’s scenic coast – a situation often complicated by changing bylaws and regulations and made more emotional because of the passionate environmentalism that runs through B.C. politics. It is also a manifestation of the tensions playing out in the Greater Vancouver area, as global capital and affluent newcomers from China flow into the region– creating profits and opportunities for the real estate industry while contributing to soaring house prices and grating against many locals’ wish for development that is more in tune with nature.

A frustrated Don Ho, the chief executive officer of the Cape on Bowen development, sees the situation quite differently from many of the locals, whom he calls “greenies” and NIMBYs (for “not in my backyard”). Mr. Ho moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1983, part of a pioneering generation of successful Hong Kong-born businessmen who have helped shape Vancouver.

After seeing the beautiful landscape along the coast of Bowen, Mr. Ho looked into the property and discovered it was privately held between the third generations of two families scattered around the world. He organized them all together and purchased the land in 2004 for $16-million. He won out over what Ms. Poole describes as a collective effort to fundraise and purchase the lands on behalf of the islanders, who had become accustomed to hiking and using the private land as if it were a park.

“When we bought the property, a lot of people were accusing us of trespassing on land that was so beautiful, that it was a shame that we developers took it on, and that we don’t value nature,” Mr. Ho says. “It’s just because they have a mentality that they have been using it as a park – and they forgot that it was private property.”

Mr. Ho, who says he consulted with some in the community, spent roughly $3-million and three years developing a plan that had 53 per cent of the land and all of the waterfront being set aside for a public park, with the rest a mix of townhomes, condos and detached houses, as well as a retirement community – something many of the retirees on Bowen have long wanted. But in exchange, and to ensure a profit on his investment, Mr. Ho wanted to put in more than the 224 units allotted in the municipality’s community plan – well over 500 residences. Islanders, worried that this plan would greatly increase Bowen’s population of about 3,400, started a petition. The council balked and it was voted down.

“That was really very shameful,” Mr. Ho says, who stresses that he respects the democratic process.

Mr. Ho then parcelled the land into 59 lots of 10 acres each, including waterfront properties selling for more than $2-million, and pushed ahead building roads. Mr. Ho and his development partner Edwin Lee both bought plots and, though neither had yet built a house, they both erected large docks on concrete pilings.

Locals were furious. The municipal council began to enact bylaws, first limiting the size and scope of docks on the cape – and later banning them entirely. Mr. Ho, whose dock was already built, encouraged the landowners to take the municipal council to court. Zuo Zongshen, a Chongqing-based billionaire who made his fortune selling motorcycles in China and last year bought 49 per cent of Vancouver-based floatplane operator Harbour Air, has filed a petition with the Supreme Court of British Columbia, as has landowner Shu Lin Dong, alleging the municipality “breached its duty of procedural fairness.” Private docks are also an issue elsewhere in B.C.: Lululemon’s billionaire founder Chip Wilson angered the chief of the Sechelt Indian Band on the Sunshine Coast with plans for a 2,498-square-foot dock.

Mr. Zuo, a partner in the Cape on Bowen development, has put about $21-million into the project. He had obtained a provincial approval for his dock before being denied a building permit by the municipal council. Joanne Yan, a Vancouver-based consultant who works with the businessman, said Mr. Zuo is extremely frustrated– particularly since he did due dilligence, and bylaws at the time he purchased the plot allowed a dock.

Dennis Vetter, a retiree who can see one of the Bowen docks from his kitchen window, says the island was already under pressure since house prices started to rise in Vancouver, driving more and more young families to Bowen’s more affordable market. He suggests Mr. Ho’s dock and the others were only built to prove that docks could be built, but that they are entirely impractical for this side of Bowen. He says the shore “gets hammered” by waves when a westerly wind picks up, and that the docks have had to be repaired several times since they were built because of rough seas. No one would – or should – moor a boat there overnight, he says, noting that he has only seen a boat there once since the dock was built in 2013.

“This whole thing would have gone differently had they built a community dock,” Mr. Vetter says. “Basically, it’s the privilege of a few prevailing over the rights of the many.”

Mr. Ho, for his part, said he has tied up at his dock for a picnic with his family, and suggested he has done everything he can to placate the islanders – such as building a public trail along the shore. He says he and the other owners of Cape on Bowen plots – who he says are one-third Caucasian, one-third Chinese-Canadian and one-third from China, or “Chinese-Chinese” as he puts it – are being discriminated against.

“It’s discrimination to a huge degree,” Mr. Ho says. “They discriminate against me because I’m not an islander. How can they can classify me as an alien? I’m Chinese, but I am more Canadian than some of the islanders.”

One local developer who has lived on the island since 1993, John Reid of Mount Gardner Holdings Ltd., suggests that all parties bear some blame for the way the acrimonious dispute has unravelled. He explains that extra care should have been taken with Cape Roger Curtis, which many here treated as their own Stanley Park. After the disagreement over Mr. Ho’s original plan, Mr. Reid says the process quickly fell apart – and that the docks didn’t exactly help, since they were built after the developer had promised to preserve the waterfront. The docks, technically, do not touch the provincially-protected foreshore, but are built over it – which locals saw as a workaround that violated the spirit of keeping the shore public.

“They were pretty shocking docks,” he says. “And it was kind of like rubbing salt into the wound.”

With Mr. Reid’s own developments on the island, he consults extensively, sets more than half of the land aside as parkland, and connects new trails to existing ones. He also keeps the roads extremely narrow to minimize the impact of the development, and pays close attention to criticism in order to win over the nature-loving islanders– who are described on B.C. tourism’s website as having a “commitment to laid-back rural living” and are noted to “generally favour people over profits and art over avarice.”

Mr. Reid says this was not appreciated by the Cape on Bowen developers, which built fairly wide roads. He suggests these lessons apply elsewhere in British Columbia, as well, but that they are particularly relevant on Bowen, where islanders are “very highly educated, professional people who understand the power of their own voice,” he says.

“They know they can make a difference, and they do. They’re very vocal, they’re very smart,” he adds. “In other blue-collar communities, they don’t know how powerful they can be.”

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