Concerns surface around Tow Hill Road development

  • Sep. 1, 2006 6:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay-Skyrocketing real estate prices, destruction of forest canopy, and lack of consultation are some of the reasons Tow Hill residents are protesting a development in their neighbourhood.
The protest started Monday (Aug. 28), after workers began clearing trees on the south side of Tow Hill Road to push hydro service farther along the road towards Agate Beach. Work was stopped in the early afternoon after at least 20 people gathered. Around 400 metres of roadway had already been cleared, said local resident Meredith Adams.
“A lot of people are upset for many different reasons,” she told the Observer.
Concerned about the potential destruction of the distinctive moss-covered forest canopy along Tow Hill Road, many of the protesters spent Monday night camped on the side of the road to make sure work didn’t begin again.
Rich Schultz, who has lived in the area for 28 years, said he’s been fighting similar attempts to change the road since he first arrived.
He said the road used to be narrow and covered by canopy all the way between Tow Hill and Masset, but little by little that has changed.
For example in 1993, the Ministry of Highways wanted to widen the road and pave it all the way to Tow Hill, he said. He and others protested vehemently and Highways changed its plans.
Opening the canopy would turn what is now an idyllic hobbit-forest loved by tourists into a dusty, alder-infested mess, he said.
“You can’t replicate that road. It’s like the buffalo. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Mr. Schultz.
Mr. Schultz and another resident, Etchi Zaleski, said the property owner and BC Hydro could just as easily bury the cable under the existing road.
“It may be more expensive, but it’s doable,” said Mr. Schultz, adding that this solution would make many people happy.
The hydro poles will cover a _ mile stretch from the end of the existing service east and will service seven lots of land being developed by NIHO Land and Cattle Company.
“No one is begrudging people needing electricity, we’d just like to maintain the integrity of the road,” said Ms Zaleski. She remembers a team of researchers from the University of BC coming out to study the lichens and mosses in the canopy and thinks there is unique ecological significance in this forest.
The NIHO properties are being touted in national media as some of the last reasonably-priced ocean front recreational land in North America – with prices ranging from $295,000 to $395,000. The four-acre plots are within the Naikoon Provincial Park boundaries, but the land is privately owned. The company owns several other pieces within Naikoon Park, including a 100-acre lot on Mayer Lake ($750,000) and 160 acres in the upper Sangan River ($795,000).
NIHO purchased the land 20 years ago and is now developing the property.
Another reason people are concerned, said Ms Adams, is that development like this makes land unaffordable to locals.
Ms Adams, who is purchasing the Moon Over Naikoon Bakery property at the request of the now-deceased former owner, is concerned about the trend toward gentrification.
Another area resident said her property tax has doubled in the last year. Susan Musgrave, who lives on the Sangan River, said some Tow Hill residents are pleased by the increase in property values, while others may soon find themselves priced out of their own homes.
She’s aware this is a trend going on all over North America, but she had the illusion that the islands were different.
She said many people live on North Beach because they enjoy a certain lifestyle. “It used to be one or two people cutting out life on a patch of earth.”
“Legally, we don’t have any grounds to do this,” Ms Musgrave said, because the development is taking place on private land. But she thinks there is an ethical and spiritual argument to be made for having development move at a slower pace.
Ms Zaleski worries that there is no land left for a community that has been hoping to set up a school, a water tower and community hall.
Ms Adams said lack of public consultation is also an issue. She is on the nascent Tow Hill Standing Committee which was elected in February.
The committee met on Aug. 29 to discuss the hydro poles for the first time. Ms Adams said the committee is hoping to prepare an Official Community Plan that developers could use as a guide.
Although some people were concerned the tree felling was taking place on park land, according to a 2004 letter from BC Parks officials, all of Tow Hill Road and a 20 metre right of way along the road was removed from the park in 2001.
At the Observer’s deadline on Tuesday (Aug. 29), Ms Adams said no one was sure what would happen next.
She said Dean Nielson, one of the members of the family which owns NIHO, had been out to the site in the morning with the workers and that they left when they saw the people gathered there.
She did say, “Until he meets with the community, they are not doing any further work.”
Rudy Nielsen, president of NIHO, told the Observer that most of the area being cleared is covered in alder. He said there are old-growth spruce trees on the north side of the road, and the company decided to put the power poles on the other side of the road in order to save the old-growth.
As for public consultation, he said he has been working on the development for five years and this was the first he’s ever heard of a problem. He said he’s talked with a lot of people in the Masset area, and no one has ever asked him to come to any meetings.
“I didn’t know we had a problem until we started work,” he said.
He and his sons who work in the family business consulted their lawyers on Aug. 29, but would not say what the next steps would be.
He is taken aback by the protests, suggesting that he has been pretty lenient as a landowner over the years.
“We’ve had a lot of squatter problems,” he said, noting there is a squatter who has built a cabin on Lot 6 of his property.
Mr. Nielsen said he has disposed of several pot plants and garbage dumped on his property over the years. He worries about these liabilities, as well as the potential for fires.
At press time, he would not say whether he or his sons planned to attend the community meeting or start the land clearing again. He would not comment on what further steps his lawyers had recommended.
He did say his family plans to build a home on one of the beachfront lots, and that the Charlottes are one of the best places in North America.
“The only thing that spoils the Charlottes is cell phones going in,” he says, noting his displeasure at bringing the new into the old.
When told that he has that sentiment in common with many of the protesters, Mr. Nielsen said, “They’ve all got power. I don’t see why somebody else can’t have power.”
Vancouver-based artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas was not at the protest, but he commented on the North Beach developments from a Haida point of view.
He said those who have traditionally harvested spruce roots and strawberries in areas like this are forced to go farther and farther away now that so much beach frontage is cleared.
“Why, because we feel awkward,” he said.
On the other hand, he sees development as an opportunity to show people who can afford recreational properties, and who have some degree of influence, the way things are done on Haida Gwaii.
He said the community doesn’t wait for others to solve their problems, citing the creation of Gwaii Haanas, the Gwaii Trust and the protocol agreements as examples.
He thinks the relationship between the settlers and the Haida on the islands has the potential to become a model for other communities.