Tofino’s three mayoralty candidates faced off during an online Zoom-based forum hosted by the Tofino Long Beach chamber of commerce last week.
JJ Belanger, Dan Law and Andrea McQuade responded to questions around water, sewage treatment, tourism, housing and a variety of other topics as they made their pitch to replace the town’s former mayor and now MLA Josie Osborne at the helm of the community’s local government during the Feb. 17 event.
Law and McQuade both resigned their council seats to run for mayor while Belanger is taking his first swing at municipal politics.
The chamber’s executive director Jen Dart served as the event’s moderator and led the questions off by asking each candidate to describe what they believe are Tofino’s top three local issues.
McQuade noted the candidates had been asked that question several times on the campaign trail and that while she understands why it’s being asked, she tends to “push back” on answering it.
“We need to understand that as a community all of our issues, be it tourism, infrastructure, taxation, affordability are inextricably linked. We can’t talk about one without talking about the other and we can’t talk about benefits without talking about impact,” McQuade said. “I understand that our community has been hurting this past year. I understand that COVID and other complications have really brought to light some of the resources that we don’t have and some of the resources that we have limited. I also think it’s brought to light that we need stronger community conversations about those resources.”
Law cited tourism as a key concern, suggesting it “overarches” other issues.
“It’s an integral part and an important part of our community and I think we’re moving into a stage where we really want to figure out how to manage it together. We had a really tough time last summer and it poses a lot of opportunities for us to work together and to work on some solutions for those things that cause a problem,” he said.
“I think one of the biggest issues, even with tourism and working with infrastructure and costs, is how we’re going to move forward as a community together and how we’re going to raise up everybody’s voice and find a way forward that we can all have hope in a future here together.”
Belanger said his top issue is water.
“We are in a very difficult situation where, if we have a dry spring and summer like in 2006, we may run out of water again and we don’t want to go there,” he said. “We’ve allowed a lot of development to occur over the last year and into the next two years with almost 550 units coming onboard without due care at all towards what’s going to happen when those 2,000 people come into town in the summer of 2022.”
He cited housing as another key issue, suggesting Tofino has 402 AirBNB short term rental listings.
“I’m not taking anything away from the people that have those listings as part of their mortgage and mortgage helpers, I’m talking about empty homes that need to be taxed in a different way,” he said.
Dart’s second question to the candidates was how they would deal with the town’s limited water supply considering ongoing development pressure.
Law was the first to respond and said the district has a “tremendous amount of grants going on right now” related to water supply.
“We’re going to upgrade our systems, we’re going to figure out how much water we have, how much flow, how much we’re using and we’re actually going to invest quite a bit over the next few years into upgrading the system that we actually have right now,” he said. “We’ll know where we are and we have to live within our means…Whether it’s building or growth or whatever it is, we need to live within our means, we need to know what those means are and then we need to prepare for the future.”
He added that the district is working on a comprehensive water assessment and water management plan.
Law’s answer drew an audible sigh from Belanger.
“I guess I’m a little frustrated that we’re going to be spending more money on more reports and more surveys and more of this and that when we did this in 2017,” he said referencing a report from Tofino’s then manager of public works Ricardo Araya regarding water and development.
“Why are we doing more water studies?”
He noted Tofino enters water restrictions each summer, highlighting the capacity issue.
“I live this every year,” he said. “We know there’s a problem and we have to fix it soon otherwise, come August if it’s a dry May and June, we’re not going to have any water. We’re going to be trucking it in and our residents are going to be paying for it. That is not a position I want to be in. We need to fix this now.”
McQuade suggested a “three-pronged approach” around assessment, planning and conservation.
“Quite often, Tofino has the distinct honour of being at the forefront of green initiatives and I think this is another one where we can take that lead. We have the opportunity to critically assess our water and to know exactly what our flow is, how much we have, where we are using it, how we are using it effectively or ineffectively and then we can plan. We can plan with our industry partners, we can plan with our community how best to use it and we can conserve,” she said. “We can look at encouraging green initiatives not only in our industry, but also in our community and rewarding that. Putting ourselves forward as a community that cares about water is not a bad thing. Putting ourselves forward as a community that doesn’t have water, that’s problematic.”
Law used his allotted rebuttal time to retort Belanger’s frustration over more reports being done and suggested it is imperative for Tofino to know how much water it has.
Law said alternative sources of water have been investigated, including Kennedy Lake, but suggested the lake’s water is “brackish” so accessing it would involve a huge capital cost and the treatment required to use it would not be environmentally friendly.
“The other option is to go to Bolson Creek, which is on the other side of Meares Island. It’s fantastically clean water, it’s glacier water, again extremely costly to get either over or around or through Meares Island to get that,” he said. “I just want to reiterate that taking care of our infrastructure that we have is extremely important and we’re doing it right now. And, knowing how much water we have is extremely important going forward with all of our infrastructure and building initiatives.”
Belanger responded that Araya’s 2017 report suggested the “lowest hanging fruit” was to expand the district’s Ahkmahksis reservoir on Meares Island.
“I think we need to enter into negotiations with our local First Nations to see if that is the easiest way to expand our reservoirs. It’s there, we just need to get Gibson Brothers over there and dig a bigger hole. I think that’s the lowest hanging fruit and I think we need to look at that plan if it is still feasible,” he said.
McQuade agreed that negotiations with First Nations are vital.
“We need to recognize that our relationships with the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation and the reservoir and the water that we get from Meares Island is not something that we can take for granted,” she said. “I want to highlight that those relationships and that conversation is ongoing with council and I’m incredibly proud of the work that council and staff have done this year, talking about our water, talking about our capacity, talking about where we get it from and how we value it. Those conversations are ongoing and they are fruitful.”
The candidates were also asked about sewage treatment as Tofino carries the unfortunate distinction of being the only municipality left on Vancouver Island that discharges raw effluent into the ocean. Frustrations swirled last July when the district learned that a $55 million cost estimate to build a wastewater treatment facility had fallen well short of reality and that the facility the town had designed would actually cost closer to $85 million.
McQuade called the topic one of the “elephants in the room,” affecting Tofino’s reputation as a green community and holding significant taxation implications.
“I understand that this project has come in over budget and I also understand that our district is working diligently as we speak to ensure that we are lowering costs and making this project as manageable for taxpayers as possible while holding true to our commitments to ensuring that we are not dumping raw sewage into the ocean,” she said.
“This has been a large project for a very small community and a small staff to undertake and I think this is an opportunity for leadership of mayor and council to speak to other levels of government about the support that we need as small communities, not just financially but planning-wise to get these projects completed in a way that benefits our community and draws from other sources of revenue than taxation.”
Belanger said he is concerned about whether Tofino’s population is being captured in the census.
“We’re a town of 2,200 people on average, what’s not taken into account is roughly 1,500 people living in staff accommodations. This is a census year and we need to get those people counted so that we are getting more money and more resources for RCMP, for hospital, for all the things that we have based on a community of 3,700 people not just 2,200 people,” he said.
He agreed with McQuade that higher levels of government need to be lobbied for funding and also suggested exploring avenues for tourists to contribute.
Law noted Tofino received an “unprecedented” $40 million from the provincial and federal governments towards a sewage treatment facility, but agreed that the district needs to lobby for more. He said the district is working “very diligently” on bringing the cost of the project down.
“We are within a bit of a rock and hard place. We have to treat our sewage and that’s what we want to do, environmentally, socially, it’s the thing that we have to do and we’re also constricted because we’re limited by law from borrowing enough as it is to get it done,” he said. “We’re going to stretch the cost of this over a long period of time to ease the burden on taxpayers…We’ve got to lobby government and that’s going to be a big job and hopefully very fruitful and find alternative ways of paying for this.”
The candidates were then asked about tourism and what they would do to mitigate the pressures tourists put on the town’s community and more specifically its bylaw enforcement department last summer.
Belanger said it was well known that the summer was less than perfect.
“We have to look towards our prime minister to stop paying people $2,000 a month in CERB to come out and hang out and sleep in their cars and surf and litter and do all the things that they did last summer. The perfect example was the Kennedy Flats just absolutely decimated last year,” he said. “The lack of a Poole’s Land also hurt us and our community.”
He suggested a tourism management committee is needed and launching such a committee would be one of the first initiatives he would jump on if elected.
“If we can create a tourism management committee in town that can do lobbying, that can bring ideas and solutions to council and also take it back to the tourism operators and come up with things where we can then turn this around, this will be the community we all want to live in summer, winter, spring and fall,” he said.
Law said district staff and council are currently working on a variety of initiatives, including increasing bylaw enforcement resources.
“A lot of that pressure is going to be alleviated this summer,” he said.
He suggested the creation of a tourism management committee has “been on the books for a while” and is in the works.
“I really want to see that happen with input from the community that looks at things larger than capacity as simply filling beds, but community capacity, services capacity, hospital capacity, all of those things that are impacted by the amount of people and the behaviour of people that come,” he said.
He added that a tourism master plan is also coming that will include strategies for community well-being.
McQuade agreed that the district has “excellent things on the books” that are already in motion, including enhanced bylaw enforcement.
She added that the community needs to figure out how to make the tourism economy “work harder” to support Tofino residents in meaningful ways, adding that an advisory committee would be viable and could spark valuable conversations.
“I think that seating it in an unbiased body like the CBT (Clayoquot Biosphere Trust) or an outside committee is a really wonderful way of encouraging community input and tying it to output,” she said. “When those things come back to council from bodies like the CBT, we know that they’re getting unbiased, unfiltered and really meaningful community engagement and I’m really looking forward to hearing some of that.”
Following the questions from the chamber, the candidates answered questions submitted from the online audience, with the first one being around affordable housing and what they would do to make it possible for Tofino residents to stay and live in town.
The question resonated with McQuade, who said she had lived in Tofino for four years before spending the past two “looking at the District of Tofino from 4 kilometres away and hoping that one day I get to live there again.”
“I think that affordability and affordable housing are inextricably linked and as we look at creating an ecosystem of housing that means that we have affordable rentals, affordable purchase, that we have market rentals and market purchase,” she said. “These things are incredibly interrelated, interconnected and require an incredible amount of work. I am thankful for the work that the THC (Tofino Housing Corporation) does and I believe that there is hope. We need to keep moving forward, we need to allocate resources, time and we need to reach out to developers. We can do this, we will do this and we will have an opportunity to buy and own in Tofino.”
Belanger said Tofino has “a lot of development” on the go with a revised Woodsmere application nearing final approval as well as the district’s affordable housing projects at DL114 and Sharp Road.
“I think, in the future, what we need to look at is private public partnerships. If we have land that we can give up and work with a partner then that is the direction we need to go in. There are great developers out there that can develop some really good product in all different kinds of price ranges,” he said. “There are other developers out there, even local developers that are willing to partner and I think that is the direction we need to be looking at. I don’t think Tofino should be in the landlord business.”
Law said he would like to see the community work towards making it possible for people living in Tofino to find rental housing and ownership.
“I think the private sector has a role to play certainly, like Yew Wood and the Gateway units,” he said.“I think we need to look at it all together.”
He added that the district has invested in the THC and he’s looking forward to seeing those affordable housing projects moving ahead.
“I think we can all move together with a vision for Tofino that offers all the people that really want to dig down and make this their home and invest in this community that they have a hope in the future,” he said.
Housing development traditionally involves the removal of trees, so it was no surprise that another question from the audience asked how the candidates would protect trees from construction projects and revitalization plans.
“Put down the chainsaws people. Every time one goes off, eyebrows go up,” Belanger said. “In the Woodsmere development, they basically clearcut the whole land in hopes that they would be able to build everything they wanted at one time and now they’re building one quarter of what they originally wanted with the rest of the land being clearcut. We’ve got the back half of DL114 once the affordable housing is done that I’m praying is not going to be clearcut…We need to look at developers that are going to keep as much forest as possible. Just use the footprint that you need and then leave the rest of the trees and we should be giving permits to those people first.”
Law said council has made “tremendous” advances in Tofino’s Official Community Plan to protect trees, including a municipal forest tree strategy and added that he lobbied hard for wildlife corridors to be included in the OCP
“We have a great wildlife habitat development permit area, which covers almost all of Tofino and that really allows for council to make sure that we have contiguous forests to travel through,” he said. “Those are really big wins for Tofino.”
He added that he would “personally advocate” to protect forests from being removed as part of the THC’s DL114 project and said work is needed to get “people behind the idea that it’s not a land-use, that land that’s not being built on right now is somehow not useful, it is.”
McQuade agreed with Law and said that it’s not about land-use, it’s about land-visioning.
“When we look at visioning, what we can have for the district of Tofino and surrounding communities we need to be thoughtful. This is about having big hard conversations. Nobody wants to cut down trees here, but we do need to look at how we retain our community. It seems paradoxical to say that we need to house the people that will protect the trees, but that’s not wrong. We need to look at how we support our community with housing and how we make those difficult decisions about where to put those houses and how to resource them,” she said.
The final question the candidates were asked was about COVID-19 and how they would unite the community around provincial orders for non-essential travel.
Law suggested there is confusion over what non-essential travel actually means.
“We’ve got vacation rentals open, we’ve got resorts open, so we’re really broadening what the term essential travel means. We’ve got a lot of people going out of town to do skiing and trips and trips and stuff like that, so this is actually a really difficult problem,” he said.
He added the provincial orders will likely change as spring moves into summer, depending on the COVID-19 pandemic numbers.
“We’ll have to be very careful as a community how we move forward. I think there’s way to do it, if we decide as a community to move as one we can through communication, getting everybody together is paramount.”
Belanger, who is the general manager of Crystal Cove Beach Resort in Tofino, suggested that some of Tofino’s visitors consider their trips to Tofino essential for their mental health and suggested it’s not travel that spreads COVID-19, but behaviours.
“It’s not skiing that causes COVID, it’s not driving to the resort that causes COVID, it’s the after parties and the apres ski and the gatherings and such,” he said. “When we talk about non-essential travel, I’ve spoken to guests on the phone that literally are in tears saying if they can’t come then theyre going to break and we’re talking mental health problems, they need to come to Tofino, it is essential for them to get away from the craziness.”
He said resorts need to ensure they are following all COVID-19 regulations and doing everything they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep their guests safe.
McQuade said there is a “very clear definition” of what essential travel is for things like work, work, childcare and senior care.
“That being said, the nuances that exist within that for a community that is remote, that is expensive, that we have a multiplicity of communities here, means that our definitions of essential vary, but this community has been incredibly resilient in its protection of each other, in its support of each other and is finding its way through COVID,” she said.
“I understand that there may be some disunity felt around the definition, but there is unity felt in that we are moving through this together the best way that we know how, one day at a time towards better futures. I strongly believe that we are doing that to the best of our abilities with compassion and empathy for each other and the choices that we each have to make.”