Within a generation, a once pristine uninhabited island was almost irreparably destroyed by invasive species and a factory for the worst of human nature. Yet, through extensive remediation, thoughtful planning, and an unwavering commitment to conservation, James Island becomes a beacon for sensitive living in fragile ecosystems.
James Island, an 846-acre site in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, is home to an overwhelming sense of tranquility and connection to the surrounding rural island environment. Unique among neighboring islands, the sand-based soils and moderate climate result in a wealth of natural riches including miles of beachfront, temperate rainforest, fresh and saltwater marshes, and extraordinary views of the surrounding waters and Olympic Peninsula. It also provides sanctuary for the largest population of the endangered Contorted-Pod Evening Primrose in the Gulf Islands region. However, the story of this small uninhabited jewel of nature is marked by nearly catastrophic biological invaders, world wars, and reckless resort development ideas.
In the early 1900’s, the island became a hunting club for well-to-do sportsmen from nearby Victoria including the Premier of British Columbia. Old-growth forest and grassland vegetation communities were severely affected when populations of non-native deer introduced for sport, quickly exploded absent any natural predators. In 1913, as the specter of World War I loomed, a dynamite manufacturing facility was located on the island to protect the mainland from its highly explosive products. James Island was pressed into service again at the onset of World War II where nearly all of the armaments for the Canadian military campaign were generated. The scale of production was massive and required a permanent population of over 1,000 people, docks for shipping, and railroads for transportation of the highly explosive shells. The legacy of the war effort was a brownfield condition spread across the entire island. New owners in the 1980’s promised remediation and gained approval for a high density resort project with an uninspired suburban layout that did not account for the fragile ecosystems that were struggling to re-establish. Critical habitats on James Island were identified for unsupervised public access, a golf course was partially constructed, and homes were planned on the island’s most exposed locations. The promises came and went, toxic conditions remained, and the plan was never fully realized. James Island would continue the slow healing process on its own.
Eventually, a new owner with a passionate commitment to conservation acquired the island in 1993. Over a 15-year period, a combination of comprehensive wildlife management and environmental remediation of soil-bound explosives and other industrial materials made James Island habitable once again. Remarkably, some of the region’s most rare and sensitive environmental habitats survived this saga and vigorously grew back toward pre-industrial conditions.
In addition to the massive remediation effort, a comprehensive master planning and rezoning process was required to protect James Island forever. The entire James Island team, including existing island staff, engaged in a collaborative planning and design effort through multiple on-site work sessions. The input solicited from local personnel provided critical information on the challenging logistics of operating community amenities on an island. Rather than working on a paper plan in isolation, the concepts produced during these charrettes were immediately field referenced, confirmed, and tested against climatic conditions, scenic quality, and ecosystem suitability. The sublime beauty of James Island, a sharp focus on environmental sensitivity, and a commitment to preserving the intrinsic character of the region led to a master plan unique from other resort development concepts.
The vision for the island was framed around providing a tangible connection to nature for future residents and guests. In spite of its history, James Island still represents some of the most rare, diverse, and valued marine estuary and sand dune ecosystems on the Pacific coast. The most sensitive habitat areas, totaling nearly 20% of the island, were permanently protected through partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. A suite of conservation easements were developed and approved as part of the ordinance, guaranteeing protection in perpetuity. Access to these areas was preserved, but only for educational and research purposes by school children, university students, and wildlife or habitat professionals. The public has access to enjoy the entire 12.9 kilometer (8 mile) coastline and beaches of James Island. The existing golf course was converted to exclusively organic fertilizers, integrated pest management, and maintenance by electric vehicles and equipment.
The new plan sought to locate future development in areas that not only protected habitat and scenic views, but also responded to the micro-climatic elements of the island to maximize the viability of indoor/outdoor living. An extensive digital site analysis and corresponding on-site field measurements of wind, temperature, sun, and ocean currents guided the team to locate residential lots and the village core in comfortable settings with enhanced sun exposure and wind protection.
Allowable development on the island was reduced by over 60%, from 210 units, arranged in a suburban cul-de-sac layout, to only 80 individually-sited lots. To further protect the environmental integrity of James Island, the zoning limits the size of single family dwellings to only 5,000 square feet and anticipates the difficulties associated with individual owners building homes on the island. The logistics of transporting materials and laborers to construct site-built structures on an island location are extremely challenging. Therefore, James Island requires that all buildings be pre-fabricated on the mainland and then delivered via barge to the island to be sensitively placed into the native landscape.
All vehicular travel on the island is limited to a fleet of small-scale electric cars roughly a third the size of a standard vehicle. This facilitated the use of small low impact roads tightly integrated with the existing topography and landscape. The residences are connected by a sinuous road network and corresponding trail system leading to a series of shared public spaces including the refurbished wharf building, general store, spa and wellness center, children’s barn and activity area, pool house, and golf cottage.
Reduced density and limited road infrastructure allows community-based agriculture to dominate land use on the island. Nearly 50% of the land area is set aside through covenants as an Agricultural Land Reserve. A new sustainable economy based on agricultural productivity, rather than explosives, will be the essential character of the future.
Public access is an extremely important aspect of Canadian land use planning evidenced by the fact that all shorelines, regardless of upland ownership, are considered to be public lands to the high water line. The circumstances of a U.S. developer presenting an unorthodox proposal to a Canadian jurisdiction initially resulted in a level of skepticism and uncertainty by some members of the approval agency and general public. The non-traditional nature of a reduced density rezoning application that included conservation areas as opposed to public access resulted in a suspicious set of stakeholders.
When the rezoning process was initiated with the local jurisdiction, an extensive effort was made to educate decision-makers and the general public about the value of the island’s ecology. Areas identified for public parks had been placed over some of the most sensitive habitat on the island including the northern Sand Spit and the saltwater marsh. Although public parks are a cherished value in this region, unsupervised public access potentially would have destroyed these areas beyond repair.
Site visits and open discussion with the entire group to explain the environmental benefits of conservation and reduced density ultimately led to agreement on all sides. The approval agency and public users were eventually convinced the environmental integrity of the island was paramount and that unrestricted access allowed under the current zoning could have a detrimental effect on sensitive habitats. By working closely with agency commissioners, staff, and legal advisors, the new zoning plan was successfully adopted. Specific requirements in the new zoning bylaw and a set of protective covenants for wildlife management and habitat preservation provide confidence on all sides that the vision of James Island will become a reality.
Richard Shaw, FASLA Principal
Kristofer Johnson, Project Manager
Carolina Segura, Project Landscape Architect
Dori Johnson, Project Assistant
Kent Greene, Architect
Rich Carr, Architect