Bowen Island: Hippies and Rednecks Revisited

My wife and I moved to Bowen Island in the spring of 1979, enchanted by the vast green spaces, the swirl of wood smoke on a damp March morning, and the interesting mix of what we would soon describe as hippies and rednecks. There were fewer than 800 full-time residents then, and in most important respects we had all come to Bowen Island to get away from urban life. After all, you don’t move to a small island, accessible only by ferry, for the nightlife and the shopping; most of us are, almost by definition, a little reclusive. We value community, but we also like privacy, quiet and nature, and the lifestyle that these characteristics afford.


It soon became apparent that there was something of a political battle going on between the hippies and the rednecks; I was a longhaired liberal university professor, so it was pretty easy for me to pick my team. Generally speaking, it could be said that we hippies wanted to protect the land and the rednecks wanted to develop it. Our land use planning was governed by the Islands Trust and its mandate to “preserve and protect” the province’s Gulf Islands. And we liked it that way; we were pleased that Bowen Island was legally described as an “unorganized territory”.  The twin concepts of “preserve and protect” and “unorganized territory” sent out a strong message – we didn’t want developers and development. More simply put, we didn’t want population growth.


So what happened? While the rest of the metropolitan Vancouver region not quite doubled its population between 1981 and 2006, the population of Bowen Island increased by almost 400 per cent.  In proportion to the rest of metro Vancouver, our development has been rampant. And our ferry service, running back and forth across the Howe Sound 15 times every day, has given us the largest per capita carbon footprint of any municipality in the region, if not the country.


There have been many good reasons for people moving to Bowen Island:  cheaper housing than in many other municipalities, and with much larger lots; easy access to the benefits of the city; a safe and wonderfully green environment in which to raise children; a bucolic haven for the burgeoning demographic of retirees; and a workable commute for the emerging demographic of tele-commuters, those who can now work from home and venture into Vancouver, only occasionally, for meetings and other commitments.


Put differently, social and cultural changes trumped whatever hopes we might have had of keeping the island’s population small; by now a good deal of the land in private hands has been developed and sold. But there remain many empty lots and a few large parcels of land, still anticipating future applications for development. What will be our guiding principles? Keeping the population growth as small as the bylaws permit, through 10 acre lot developments, or trying to build an economically diverse and sustainable community, with community amenities such as commonly owned recreational spaces, parkland and trails?


The population of Bowen Island has changed, of course; it would no longer be accurate to describe Bowen Island as a collection of hippies and rednecks. Unlike many of my old friends, I don’t long for the days of the early 1980s. We are a more complete and more environmentally sustainable community than we were a generation ago; we don’t have to go to the city to see a doctor or have a prescription filled, to shop at a good grocery store, play a round of golf, or eat at any one of several excellent restaurants. I still hold the same values: protect the land and support the notion of a small community, something entirely different from the urban landscape of Vancouver.


But our choices are different now. Almost all of our zoning for the past two decades has supported large acreage sprawl — the best way to achieve the least population growth. One of the consequences has been the building of trophy homes for the affluent – often vacation homes for those who spend no more than a month or two on Bowen in the warm summer weather. The price of the cheapest single family home now sits at about $500,000, and successive councils have yet to give a green light to any other kind of development; townhouses and apartments are derided as “urban visions”, even if surrounded by acres of commonly owned green space.


Put differently, we are morphing into an elite community that caters to the wealthy, and, more important, our affection for large acreage sprawl is increasingly putting land at risk, rather than protecting it. Over time, the privately owned 10 acre lot is subdivided into a five acre lot, then 2.5 acres, and so on. In this new world the question of who is holding true to their original ideals has become considerably muddy.


Since 1999 we have been a municipality within the Islands Trust, and old habits die hard. The restriction of population growth remains a rallying cry for many Islanders. For these folks, the issue of population growth is not just important: it is the linchpin for the evaluation of all development proposals, the only variable of overriding significance. Ironically, while they claim that restricting population growth is the best way to protect our conifers and diverse eco-systems, large lot zoning actually permits more massive tree-cutting and environmental destruction than almost any other form of land use. More important, large-lot zoning creates an ever-deepening cycle of vehicle dependency. The associated carbon emissions have caused, and continue to cause, global impacts that are, frankly, unconscionable. Beyond our splendid isolationism, our highly selective view of how best “to protect the environment” is growing less and less acceptable — we should be embarrassed.


Sad to say, it is this presumed need to restrict population as much as legally possible that compromises environmental protection, an environmentally sustainable economy and community diversity.


In this new reality, even the labels that we apply to ourselves are up for debate. Who speaks for the environment? Who are the hippies and who are the rednecks?


 Life was so much simpler 30 years ago.

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