An application to build staff housing at the Tofino Botanical Gardens has shined a confusing light on a longstanding local scuttlebutt.
The Gardens is a roughly 10-acre lot bordering the Tofino Mudflats that includes a café, office spaces, staff accommodation, the botanical gardens and complementary trails and artwork as well as a student dormitory, dubbed The Ecolodge.
The definition of what a student dormitory is, specifically who qualifies as a student, has long vexed residents, district staff and the town’s council.
“There’s been two constant sources of aggravation in this town,” said Coun. Duncan McMaster during Tofino’s Nov. 12 municipal council meeting. “One is the South Chesterman condos—which I think we won a battle, but we still have a long war to fight on that one—and the second one is the student accommodation at The Ecolodge being used as tourist accommodation.”
The Ecolodge’s zoning specifies that it cannot be used for tourist commercial accommodation and can only rent rooms to students, however there is no clear definition for ‘student’ in any of the district’s bylaws, according to a report from the district’s department of community sustainability.
“The District of Tofino has received bylaw complaints related to the use of the existing student dormitory facility on the property, claiming that it is being used in the same manner as a tourist commercial accommodation,” the report reads. “The Tofino Zoning Bylaw does not have a specific definition for “student accommodation”, “student dormitory facility”, or “student” and it has been difficult to conclusively interpret the zoning bylaw and respond to the bylaw complaints in a manner satisfactory to all parties.”
The issue landed on council’s table last week by way of an application from the Tofino Botanical Gardens’ owner, George Patterson, requesting permission to build new staff accommodation units on site and nix the word ‘student’ from The Ecolodge’s zoning.
Mayor Josie Osborne declared a conflict of interest and recused herself from the conversation, as Patterson is her husband.
In a presentation to council, Patterson suggested the unclear ‘student’ zoning was written by a municipal councillor in the late 1990’s, when the district did not have a full-time planning department.
“As things were done in those days, an interested member of council wrote the bylaw. This might be a cautionary tale for councillors not to write bylaws themselves,” he said. “Well intentioned, knowledgeable and experienced though he was, the bylaw crafted allows for a broad range of interpretation and misinterpretation. It is this uncertainty for me and for the district that I want to get it clarified and made clear.”
McMaster noted that Coun. Al Anderson was on council when The Ecolodge’s original zoning was granted and asked Anderson what council’s intent was at that time.
“The language that we tried to have in this comprehensive zoning was to restrict it from being a tourist accommodation,” Anderson responded. “There was some fear that it would become another kind of hotel or visitor accommodation, so that’s why the language was put in around ‘student dormitory.’ The mistake was not clearly defining that well enough.”
McMaster disagreed that the word ‘student’ is unclear and suggested The Ecolodge is currently operating as a hotel, catering to any tourists who choose to book a room there.
“I tend to think if you sign something saying it’s for student accommodation, it should be for students and it should be enforced by asking for student ID. It doesn’t even advertise as student accommodation,” he said.
The Tofino Botanical Gardens’ website describes The Ecolodge as a “12 room bed and breakfast” that can “comfortably” accommodate up to 30 guests.
“We welcome teachers, students and individuals of all walks of life and provide access to the gardens with each stay in one of our rooms,” the website reads.
Rooms can be rented at The Ecolodge from $159-$239 per night during the summer and $109-$159 per night during the winter.
In a presentation to council, Tofino’s Manager of Community Sustainability Aaron Rodgers explained that Patterson had requested that both the staff housing and zoning amendment requests be part of the same application.
“The original application was to allow additional staff housing units on the property. Over the last year of conversations with the planning staff, there’s been another use request added to the application,” Rodgers said adding the additional request to remove the word ‘student’ has “complicated matters.”
“It’s a small amendment, but it actually has a fairly significant use change…The proposed amendment would allow commercial accommodation, which is not currently permitted on site.”
District staff’s report notes that the language in The Ecolodge’s current zoning “clearly describes that the dormitory shall not be used for tourist accommodation purposes.”
In his first council meeting since being elected in Tofino’s Nov. 2 byelection, Coun. Dan Law did not mince words, accusing the gardens of operating as a tourist accommodation despite its zoning.
“Right now, we do have commercial tourist use, it is not linked to being a student; I know that…I just want to make it clear that it is actually happening. The idea that ‘student’ is a grey area is, to my mind, a bit of a red herring,” he said. “I am not a student. I know that I am not a student and I am able to rent a place at the Botanical Gardens.”
Coun. Tom Stere agreed with McMaster that the word ‘student’ should not be causing such confusion.
“To my mind, that’s fairly clear and I don’t know why it’s perceived as vague language,” he said.
Coun. Andrea McQuade, acting as mayor in Osborne’s absence, cautioned council against focusing on the past.
“While this council is always excellent at giving a nod to the history of decisions, I would prefer personally that we not focus too much on what the mistake in the zoning was previously as we go forward,” she said. “This is zoning that will remain in place for quite a while and we want to make sure that it is good for the council of the day.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers questioned whether the student designation meant anyone with a student card, or someone specifically visiting Tofino to study.
McQuade suggested “hard and fast, enforceable definitions of student” are needed.
“That is what the applicant has asked for and, I assume, probably what bylaw is looking for as well,” she said. “I don’t believe that this necessarily is a debate about whether or not it is happening, but about how to, from this point on, mitigate and clarify.”
Unable to reach an immediate conclusion, council directed district staff to work with Patterson and put together a report outlining the options the district has around how ‘student’ can be defined and what enforcement can occur.
That report is expected to be presented in the spring of 2020, according to Rodgers.
The Westerly News reached out to Tofino’s Fire Chief and Manager of Protective Services Brent Baker, who leads the district’s bylaw department, for comment on how complaints regarding The Ecolodge have been followed up on.
“At this time, I am unable to comment on any possible complaints or investigations that may be underway involving the Tofino Botanical Gardens due to confidentiality,” Baker said.
Patterson told the Westerly News after the meeting that he disagreed with comments made by councillors around applying a strict definition to ‘student.’
“Duncan [McMaster’s] definition is, I would say, very much on the right side; it’s very restrictive,” Patterson said. “The way Duncan’s phrasing it is denigrating tourists. It’s saying that there’s something unsavoury about tourists and pure about students and I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think you can make the distinction between a tourist and a student. You get into situations where you have people with student cards from UBC coming up and just drinking themselves silly over the weekend, or going surfing.”
Patterson said he prefers a broader definition that’s “not exclusive or elitist.”
“My definition is more a person who is a keen observer, interested in the area, wanting to learn about the cultural and natural history. It’s not a person who’s registered in a course,” he said.
He noted that The Ecolodge hosts an annual four-day mushroom course that is “very popular” and would not be allowed under a strict definition of ‘student.’
“It just becomes kind of silly when you say, ‘We’re only going to let this one category of people stay there.’ That was never my understanding,” he said. “Had it been a definition of ‘student’ that was very restrictive, I never would have built the lodge because I knew it wouldn’t work. So, I’ve always approached it with the most liberal and broadest definition of student.”
He acknowledged guests have never been asked for student ID in The Ecolodge’s roughly 13 years of operation, but suggested its website advertises it as a learning environment, noting the rooms do not have televisions and bathrooms are shared.
He said he is willing to work with the district on clearing up confusion around The Ecolodge’s zoning, but suggested council cannot force him to operate under a new definition of ‘student.’
“They can’t impose a definition after the fact. We’re looking for a solution to it and we’re going to work together, but it’s not going to be, ‘We’ve decided that you need to check student ID on everybody who stays here.’ That’s not an option for them to do,” he said.
“It wouldn’t work financially. It barely works now…It’s very lean, but I love the project. It’s more an art project for me than anything else, but I have to make it work as a business. I have to pay the bills.”