Once upon a time a dog, a nice, but prone to doggish perceptions dog, was carrying a bone-a juicy large bone- he had “found” behind a butcher shop in the nearby town when he came to a bridge. The dog was quite happy with his bone until, while crossing over the bridge the dog happened to notice his reflection on the surface of the river below. Taking the reflection for another dog with an even bigger, more juicy bone that his own, he opened his mouth to bark at the “other” dog below hoping to intimidate the reflected dog into giving up his bone. But, on opening his mouth to bark our dog-on-the-bridge let his own juicy bone slip out of his hungry mouth which was soon lost in the river below. –Aesop’s Fables A Dog and his Bone

Some things just don’t change. This ancient Greek fable couldn’t have been more perceptive if it had been written by our Comox Valley Poet Laureate in response to the calamity that is so dastardly and unnecessarily breaking apart the small Comox Valley community Union Bay. Not to worry, I’m not about to drag you through the mud(pretty stinky mud) of who said what to whom, when,  for what purpose over the seemingly relentless effort to bully the Union Bay Improvement District(UBID) into reinstating a flawed water infrastructure agreement with Kensington Island Properties (KIP). KIP is the development company that wants to construct a 845 acre (342 ha) waterfront development in Union Bay that, when completed, would include 3000 homes, a golf course, shopping centre, professional offices, marina, walkways and greenspace. Anyone interested in the who said what when  can type UBID- KIP into google and a stream of vituperation will come rolling out like one of those broken vending machines that just keeps giving. What I am hoping to do in this opinion piece is dispel some commonly held myths about the causes of the conflict and point to some obvious solutions that get lost in the confusion of all the rhetorical guns firing off in all directions.

I fully realize it sounds flippant to talk of conciliation while using a term like “rhetorical guns” or “bullying” but, my gosh, Wednesday night I went to what was billed as an all candidates meeting to let Union Bay residents hear from and ask questions of candidates running to fill three vacancies on the UBID board. I was expecting differing opinions from the candidates and tough questions from the audience BUT I wasn’t expecting the near riot that broke out when the candidates representing the developer’s interests made it clear they were not there to participate in the discussion but were determined to commandeer the meeting in order to make inflammatory statements before a preemptory exit. Pushing shoving was well underway before the adroit moderator was able to separate the sides and convince members of the audience to return to their seats.  I found a seat closer to the rear exit, took a deep breath, tried to remember if I had taken my blood pressure meds and recalled the words of one former UBID trustee who, on exiting the board, put his heart into his final words to the board and community, “Let us pray for resolution so the community may heal and move forward.”

The problem for an outsider—and perhaps even more so for Union Bay insiders–in trying to understand the conflict in Union Bay is it is all too easy to fall into the media-hyped line that the conflict in Union Bay is about people who–on one side–have their little plot in paradise and don’t want to share it, and—on the other side—people who simply worship a pile of money and aren’t concerned about the people they bulldoze aside in their rush to amass an even bigger pile of money.

The problem in Union Bay, the problem that is creating so much acrimony, that is driving some people to want to move away, that is pitting neighbor against neighbor, that has held up an multi-million dollar residential development, golf course, marina, pedestrian friendly village, park and trails is THINKING IT IS ABOUT YES OR NO TO DEVELOIPMENT!!

THE PROBLEM IS the very issue that will increasingly drive conflicts around the world: It’s  the water: who gets the water and who pays.  And behind all the conflict over wording to an agreement on water use and who pays is the Naramata Irrigation District’s(NID) debacle over a  water agreement gone bad where fifteen years ago NID was forced by the courts to settle with developer Blackwell Stores Ltd. for $5.2 million over water the courts ruled Blackwell had a right to expect based on their agreement with NID but NID didn’t have the ability to deliver. Naramata landowners are just now paying off the last their debt to Blackwell—despite voluntary contributions from several senior levels of government.  A note worth taking is that NID no longer exits. Its services have been taken over by the regional district which is large enough to have the legal and planning services to deal effectively with large developments—an idea that has been recently taken up by many Union Bay homeowners.

The problem in Union Bay is that underlying the discussion about water supply is the wholly inaccurate but intractable idea that the water is just a tool in the attempt to either ram through or stifle the development plans for KIP. Based on my interviews with Union Bay residents it perfectly clear to me that almost all want the development to go ahead but they don’t want to get stuck with a 2011 water agreement that could leave them with costly repairs or water supply construction costs in order to supply KIP needs which are much greater than all the rest of Union Bay. No matter how many times trustees or residents point to the exact clause in the expired 2011 agreement that causes so much concern, Kensington vice-president Brian McMahon can’t seem to hear that it is this one clause about who is responsible for costs to supply KIP water that is holding up an agreement and that it is not about trying to delay or stop KIP but about trying to find a solution that is workable and affordable for all—so KIP can go ahead!

It’s as though McMahon has this bone—a really big juicy, nutritious bone in his grasp but he sees a bone that is even a little bigger that he almost had (it was KIP that, inexplicably and unexplained by anyone, let the 2011 agreement expire).  And now he seems to want it back so badly that he is willing to put the whole development on hold or in danger of even further project killing delays. A caveat: There is a draft 2016 water use Memorandum of Understanding between KIP and UBID worked out with the assistance of BC government appointed mediator, Jim Mattison. It has been signed off on by UBID directors but, for some reason McMahon has, so far not been willing to sign off on what UBID and the mediator recorded as having been agreed to.

The by election is tomorrow, October 22 so perhaps McMahon is waiting to see if his three candidates get elected—in which case—they will likely reinstate the 2011 agreement. They could be elected if residents really do believe the whole dispute is simply yes or no to development. Or the three community candidates could get elected. In which case, hopefully, McMahon will sign off on the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding regarding a water agreement. KIP will, then, not go the way of the Trilogy Project and Sage Hills and the community can—yet—“heal and move forward.”