Balance was the key theme of last week’s all candidates meeting in Tofino as the town’s six byelection hopefuls each promised to seek successful equilibriums between tourism and local needs as well as affordable housing and environmental protection.
Tofino will vote in a municipal byelection on Nov. 2, with Cathy Thicke, Omar Soliman, Ronnie Lee, Dan Law, Craig Heber and Stephen Ashton running for one vacant council seat.
All six candidates attended the Oct. 16 forum hosted by the Tofino Long Beach Chamber of Commerce and questions from the audience led them through a variety of topics, though affordability dominated the conversation.
The Westerly News streamed the two-hour event live on its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/WesterlyNews.
Omar Soliman brought the evening’s first unexpected moment when he cast his prepared opening statement aside, calling it “a bit fluffy” and urging open dialogue.
“I’m going to go off the cuff right now and just try something different. One of the problems I feel that there is in Tofino is that there’s just a lack of communication between everybody,” he said.
He asked the evening’s attendants to take out their cell phones and type his number into their contact lists, giving out his phone number—250-266-6866—and encouraging them and those watching on the event’s live video feeds, to reach out.
“That’s my personal number. I just want to give it to you all. It’s open 24 hours a day for everybody here. Call me for whatever you need, anything, at any time of day. Even if you just want to talk and just figure out what we can do to help this town,” he said before joking, “Don’t call me for emergencies; call 911.”
The candidates were unanimous in their belief that balancing the town’s tourism success with the needs of local residents is one of Tofino’s most pressing issues.
“We need to do something if we want to keep the residents here. I’ve watched too many people leave because there is not services, there is not affordability and it seems that we are too dominated by tourism, tourism, tourism; which is fine if tourism was paying the bills for the other things that a town needs and a community needs,” said Craig Heber.
He suggested that local residents are carrying too much of the tax burden, while the local resorts benefiting from the tourism economy are not paying their fair share.
“It doesn’t really spill down to the rest of the community,” he said.
Dan Law said cost issues around childcare, housing and the wastewater treatment project must take precedent.
“I think it all points to the same issue and that is that Tofino has been very economically successful with tourism and it has, in some ways, outpaced Tofino’s ability to care for its community to a full extent,” he said. “I think that probably the biggest issue with council right now is to try to catch up to our economic success with tourism and start to care for people. Tourism really is a resource industry and the resource is our people and place and the people are really important; this is what we are.”
Ronnie Lee said a “lack of fiscal planning in the past,” has created unexpected tax hikes and promised that reducing the burden on taxpayers would be his first priority if elected.
“Tofino used to thrive on logging and fisheries and now that we’ve moved to ecotourism, I think we may have missed some unforeseen things along the way,” he said. “I think the burden of this has fallen back on the taxpayers.”
Soliman said all issues are important and reiterated his belief that communication must be improved.
“If ever there’s an issue, it’s going to be pressing,” he said. “We live in a small town guys, 2,000 people, we should be able to know what the majority of the people in this town want. The goal of council is to enforce the will of the people.”
He commended the current council for trying to do that, but said there is room for improvement and, during a later conversation, suggested municipal council meetings should be set up with a live video feed where residents could voice their opinions on the agenda items at the same time council is discussing them.
Cathy Thicke cited Tofino’s $55 million wastewater treatment plant project as the largest source of the town’s tax burden and said more needs to be done to lower its cost to taxpayers.
She noted Tofino recently received about $40 million in government funding for the project, but is still on the hook for roughly $16 million and suggested more work should be done to receive financial contributions from Parks Canada and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation as they would both be using the plant as well.
“We’ve got a lot of questions that we don’t have answered and I would like to see us really go to bat for this $16 million that is pushing our taxes up at this extraordinary level,” she said.
Stephen Ashton said residents cover too much of the costs associated with infrastructure projects that also benefit tourists and suggested new funding formulas should be worked out so that tourists pay a larger share.
He cited the Municipal, Regional, District Tax, formerly known as the additional hotel room tax, as a potential source for more funding, noting that Tofino currently collects a 3 per cent MRDT rate.
“I think that we would be able to lobby the provincial government to get that increased, perhaps another 2 per cent,” he said adding additional lobbying is needed to convince the provincial government to ease current mandates on how the MRDT funds can be spent.
Eileen Floody was the first audience member to raise a question from the floor and, noting each of the candidates had talked about Tofino’s natural beauty during their opening statements, she asked them what their plan would be to protect trees in Tofino.
“Affordable housing is being put above the preservation of natural environment,” she said.
Floody said she was “sympathetic” to residents in need of housing, but suggested there are creative ways to create that housing without obliterating forests.
Lee was the first candidate to respond and suggested housing should take precedence.
“I definitely don’t want to see a lot of trees being clearcut, but the fact of the matter is that we have people who don’t have electricity and they don’t have safe places to live,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of ways that we, as Tofitians, can protect the environment and I think that there’s many ways that we can be a platform for climate action as a municipality but, that being said, I think the immediate problem right now is housing in this town and people having safe places to raise their families.”
Thicke said she is “passionate” about protecting trees and noted that during her last meeting as a member of Tofino’s council—she opted not to run for reelection in 2018—she put forward a motion to revisit and revise the town’s Significant Tree Bylaw.
“I think that the riparian zone is being really squandered and I really feel for what’s going on,” she said.
She added that she understood the need to clear trees for Tofino’s current multi-use path extension project, but said significant trees should be given serious consideration after that extension is finished.
“I feel very strongly that that bylaw needs to be revisited and it needs to be activated,” she said.
Heber said old growth trees should be protected and that housing projects need to be reconsidered so that they make less of an impact on the local landscape.
“We need to change how we think about development, not just do it always the same old way. It’s cheaper to do it the same old way, but when you’re trying to protect something you maybe should try to design some innovation,” he said.
Throughout the evening, Heber consistently expressed his belief that Tofino residents are not looking to move into large-scale homes and that smaller houses built with reclaimed and recycled materials would decrease environmental impacts while increasing affordability.
Ashton suggested council should mandate maximum allowable footprints for lots to guarantee tree retention and buffers between properties.
“I also believe that building in the way that we’ve always been building has to change dramatically,” he said. “If you build properly, your home can actually be generating electricity and selling it back to the grid. These are simple ways that progressive communities can make responsible decisions and that’s what I’m in support of.”
Law spoke in favour of protecting trees through bylaws and expressed support for creating permanent protections on municipally owned land to preserve trees and wildlife corridors through the town’s Official Community Plan to protect Tofino’s landscape.
“That’s a really good idea that’s needed. It’s part of our charm. We have to keep it. It’s our home,” he said.
Soliman referenced what he called ‘The Law of Equivalent Exchange’.
“If we do need to cut down trees for the purpose of building houses or roads or whatever, I feel that we should have a set number of trees that must be planted if one tree is cut down,” he said. “For the age of the tree, that’s how many trees should get planted. So, for a 20-year-old tree, 20 trees need to be planted in place of that one tree down and whoever’s cutting that one tree down needs to replace that one tree.”
Audience member Sophie L’Homme passionately underlined the seriousness of Tofino’s housing crisis and the impact it’s having on local politics.
“For sure, my vote will go to the person that really, really, will tackle that question deep down in how can you create more housing?” L’Homme said. “How can you be creative and help me stay in this town when I invest so much time, love and energy to this community and I want to stay here. What are you going to do for people like me for people who don’t own property?”
Soliman responded by explaining he currently lives in an RV and understands L’Homme’s concerns.
He suggested the housing market is currently overpriced across Canada and suggested incentives can be developed by council through subsidized housing, allowing higher density and exploring apartment-style concepts.
“Those things do take time and it’s very difficult to plan them out and engineer them in a way that’s sustainable for the town as well as for everybody else. I think about it every night when I go to sleep in my RV. It’s a really, really, difficult question,” he said.
“I think it needs to start from within the community itself. I sometimes feel that it’s not just what the council can do, but what all of us can do for each other.”
He suggested many property owners are choosing to rent short term to tourists rather than long term to residents.
Ashton said he is currently living in staff accommodation and added that he knows “what the shuffle feels like,” but added the current housing market forces homeowners towards running vacation rentals.
“It’s simply so expensive to live here and real estate is so highly priced that the only way that people can afford real estate here is to rent it out as a short term rental,” he said.
“That’s an area that council has a lot of power over. Limiting the amount of empty homes or limiting the amount of short term rentals or nightly rentals is within the power of council.”
He added Tofino has regulations in place around short-term rentals in town, but suggested they are not being effectively enforced.
“The laws are already there and all we need is proper bylaw to make sure that the laws are respected and we can solve a lot of the issues with that,” he said. “I also think that, as a district, we’re certainly land rich and that some of the types of accommodations that people would like to live in are tiny micro-homes. We can open up some small plots of land and encourage people to build their own micro-home on it.”
Law agreed that too many residents and families are being forced to leave the community and suggested changes are coming to the Official Community Plan that will limit vacation rental development.
“That will bring the price down. You can’t have a house that’s worth money if you can’t make money. It’s the commodification of homes that is driving up the price,” he said.
He agreed with Ashton that the District is “land rich,” and should look into creative housing projects.
“There is options of turning that land into fee-simple lots for people,” he said adding regulations should be enforced that deter speculation and limit house sizes.
“It limits people from commodifying that property into a business and that will bring the price down,” he said. “People I talk to just want to live here, they don’t necessarily want to make money of their home…It’s promising, it just needs the political will and for council to get behind it.”
Lee said he runs a business that jumped from one employee to 30 and he witnessed first-hand how hard it was to find accommodations.
“I’ve witnessed people living in parking lots in Honda Civics for over a month, broken down trailers and getting bounced out of their apartments with no notice,” he said.
“I’m not a property owner in town. I hope to be one day, but right now I’m in the same struggle and I see it all around me. So, the housing crisis here in town is definitely an issue that I think is on the forefront of my agenda getting elected to council.”
He suggested current landowners should be given the option of building a third dwelling on their lot to rent out to long-term tenants.
Heber said smaller homes and co-op housing solutions should be sought along with higher density allowances to create more available units.
“There’s just no will in this town to make that move,” he said.
He added Airbnb and other online based vacation rental marketplaces have obliterated the local housing supply and stressed that current regulations must be enforced.
He added that there should be a discrepancy between creating housing for permanent and seasonal residents.
“Staff accommodation, employee accommodation, should be up to the resorts and the employers, affordable housing for community members is something council should be looking at so you actually have a community,” he said.
Thicke suggested housing was an issue when she moved to Tofino in 1989.
“Things haven’t changed a whole lot…That’s not a comfort to you I’m sure,” she said to L’Homme.
She cited three ways council could make an impact on the housing crisis, beginning with prohibiting vacation rentals for any property owner looking to subdivide their lots.
“[The] second thing is, every time council votes to convert a residential property to commercial, you are losing residences,” she said. “Every time you vote ‘yes’ for that property to change, it’s a vote against residential housing in this community.”
She added she’d like to see stricter laws around operating vacation rentals, including a mandate that all short-term rentals must be occupied by the property owner.
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