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Church moves to sink reef project Add to ...

Stiff opposition from the United Church of Canada is threatening to torpedo plans to sink a decommissioned warship in protected waters off Gambier Island, about 40 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

The Artificial Reef Society of B.C. announced this summer it is seeking provincial and federal permits to sink the former Canadian navy destroyer HMCS Annapolis in Halkett Bay Marine Park, a 309-hectare wilderness area along the island's southeastern tip.

However, the society learned last week that close to a third of the marine protected area is subject to a covenant that's attached to a nearby piece of land owned by the United Church, which has operated a camp for underprivileged children on Gambier Island since the 1920s.

Jon Jessiman, legal counsel for the United Church in B.C., said the covenant allows the church to "withdraw" the property from Halkett Bay Marine Park at any time and confirmed that the organization has written the provincial Ministry of Environment demanding changes to the park's boundaries.

Mr. Jessiman said the church is deeply concerned about the artificial reef's potential to attract recreational divers, boaters and tourists.

"We don't want to ambush either level of government, but if there is in fact going to be a vessel dropped out there, it would infringe upon the uses of the bay that we now have," he said.

"There are families and kids out there and quite frankly if there are going to be divers out there and small boats and other vessels, it creates a risk."

Mr. Jessiman said the proposed site of the artificial reef lies within the church-controlled water lot and suggested that finding another location within the marine park will be difficult.

"It may be that they'll have to move the vessel back. But if there's the likelihood of movement [on the seabed]as there usually is with dropped vessels ... they may decide to put it to someone else."

The United Church bought the waterfront property in 2008 from some long-time Gambier Island residents who had the covenant attached two decades ago in a land deal that helped the province create the marine park, Mr. Jessiman said.

ARSBC president Howard Robins declined to comment on the implications of the church's decision, saying he was unaware of the issue until a letter arrived last week from the lawyer for a group of Halkett Bay property owners who are also opposed to the artificial reef.

"If anyone's talking about taking lands back and changing things, it's literally nothing to do with me, nothing to do the society," Mr. Robins said.

The letter claims that the federal government "no longer has the authority" to issue a permit for the project and that the property "is now under the control of the Gambier Island Trust," a local government body with a strict policy prohibiting artificial reefs.

Mr. Robins blamed the controversy on a small group of Gambier Island "NIMBYS" who care more about "their needs and interests" than the larger environmental benefits of the reef project.

"I find it disgraceful, highly disgraceful, that a small group of people who are so desperate to stop an ecological project would go so far as to actually try and change the status of a B.C. park," he said.

Mr. Robins claimed the Gambier Island reef will combine "eco-tourism and habitat creation" in a setting where "divers become part of the living laboratory."

However, Doug Goodwin, executive secretary of the United Church's B.C. conference, called the reef a "tourist attraction" aimed a providing easy access to recreational divers from the Lower Mainland.

"The goal is to attract ... an industry basically," he said. "That's why the reef society is promoting it."

While the church did not intend to join forces with other artificial reef opponents, its position is consistent with local bylaws, Mr. Goodwin added.

"We do see ourselves in continuity with the Islands Trust," he said. "They don't allow it, and the boat is supposed to be sunk just outside their protected waters."

Officials with the Ministry of Environment declined to comment, saying the province has yet to receive an official "referral" on the project from Ottawa.

Staff at Environment Canada said the application is under review, noting that the reef society has been asked to provide "additional information."

The project is similar to Princess Margaret Marine Park near Sidney, the site of the society's first artificial reef and "an absolute garden under water," Mr. Robins said.

*****

Rejecting the reef

Citing safety concerns and an expected influx of recreational divers, many nearby residents are opposed to a plan to create an artificial reef in Halkett Bay Marine Park by sinking the decommissioned destroyer HMCS Annapolis. Among those opposed is the United Church of Canada, which is threatening to invoke a covenant giving it the power to withdraw land from the park if the artificial-reef plan goes ahead.

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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