Wednesday, May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

Maxwell park consultation underway

Public engagement on one park’s management plan will ramp up on Salt Spring next week, and stakeholders are sharpening their focus on roads accessing both the island’s newest park, and its oldest.

Sharing a border with the 570-acre Mount Maxwell Provincial Park, the recently acquired 75-acre Mount Maxwell Community Park was purchased in 2023 for $850,000 — a discount from market value, Capital Regional District (CRD) officials have said, with just $250,000 of that coming from the CRD’s park land acquisition funds. 

An anonymous foundation’s $250,000 donation, along with another $100,000 from the Salt Spring Island Foundation’s Susan Bloom Fund, got the ball rolling; the remaining $350,000 was raised last year through a community fundraising effort involving a wide range of islanders — a sold-out dinner event at Foxglove Farm in September, for example, brought more than $150,000 in a single night.

And with First Nations consultation underway since January, according to a newly implemented project tracker for Salt Spring’s Local Community Commission (LCC), the CRD is now reaching out to neighbours, organizations, community groups and the broader community, sending a public invitation for an information session on May 15.

It’s the first establishment of a multi-use park on Salt Spring Island in 20 years, since Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park in 2004; Mount Maxwell Community Park organizers have long envisioned non-motorized trails for hiking, mountain biking, disc golf and horseback riding. And recognizing every new park’s popularity — and with concerns the newly opened trails might connect with unauthorized “social” mountain bike trails often accessed through the provincial park, where bikes are prohibited on trails — plans are for community park access via the seldom-used Seymour Heights Road from the east, instead of the rough, difficult-to-maintain Mount Maxwell Road to the west.

But correspondence from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) indicates that with the CRD and BC Parks considering improvements at Seymour Heights, there is an open question as to whether upper Mount Maxwell Road should remain open to vehicles at all.

Highways in B.C. are classified A through F, and are maintained in that order, according to MoTI, and the last 200 or so metres at the top of Mount Maxwell Rd has a maintenance class of 8F. Roads classified under “F” might be maintained for summer traffic but have no need for winter access, or may not be maintained at all outside of periodic inspections. According to a MoTI response to inquiries from MLA Adam Olsen’s office — made responding to a constituent concern, according to staff — there has been some discussion on building a new parking lot prior to the steepest-slope “F” section of the rough Mount Maxwell Road, converting the remainder to a trail.

That may be a consideration largely due to costs. Repair work on Mount Maxwell Road is needed often, according to that MoTI correspondence, due to the steep grade and lack of drainage ditches. Establishing proper ditch works — in a steep, heavily treed area, with a narrow right-of-way and a lot of bedrock — would be expensive. A “fix” last year, using large, jagged aggregate hoped to lock into the grade more securely, involved $30,000 in spending — and lasted less than six months, MoTI said, before potholes and ruts returned.

MoTI told MLA Olsen’s office the idea of closing the upper section to vehicle traffic would be supported by some stakeholders in the area, including BC Parks — who MoTI said had not yet been involved in discussions — and the North Salt Spring Waterworks District (NSSWD), which maintains significant water supply in nearby Maxwell Lake that is often in jeopardy of being fouled by road runoff. 

NSSWD has partnered with Transition Salt Spring in extensive efforts to improve the Maxwell Lake watershed’s health over the last several years, and officials confirmed the district’s position that closing the upper section would likely support that work. Apart from roadway runoff, NSSWD has struggled with trespassers both contaminating the water and starting dangerous fires near the fragile watershed during hot weather.

“Every summer there seems to be more and more tourists, and that’s more and more traffic through the watershed illegally,” said NSSWD’s Tammy Lannan. “We put up fencing, but they’re just going right around it.”

But essentially closing the viewpoint to everyone but hikers may not be universally supported. Much of the current popularity of Mount Maxwell Provincial Park lies in its hikers-only trail system; but back in 1938, the park was “originally established for its distinctive landmark viewing point” at the summit of Baynes Peak, according to BC Parks.

And there are public safety concerns; in a recent letter to MoTI, Salt Spring Island Search and Rescue (SSISAR) asked the ministry to look at solutions to improve Mount Maxwell Road to the top, as its deterioration over the past several years has led to a “detrimental effect in emergency response.” 

Just last month, SSISAR responded to a park visitor injured near the viewpoint, and road conditions forced an ambulance staging area to be established — roughly where MoTI correspondence indicated an interest in building a parking lot, should the uphill roadway be closed to vehicle traffic — to support an extended stretcher transport, delaying both response and evacuation time.

Salt Spring’s CRD director Gary Holman said while the public safety argument to improve Mount Maxwell Road was compelling, there could be consequences either way.

“Human access tends to increase the risk of fire, so there might be an argument in that direction,” said Holman. “But we need to get all the stakeholders in the same room and talk through the issue, because that’s how you move things forward.”

Meanwhile, as engagement for management plans for the Mount Maxwell Community Park continues, the CRD has said it would review all feedback and present findings back to engaged Indigenous communities for review prior to crafting a preliminary plan. Under the Local Community Commission, Salt Spring’s Parks, Arts, Recreation and Culture department is responsible for providing and maintaining community parks and trails.

The LCC next meets at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 9; the CRD’s public information session for the community park is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 15. Both meetings will be held at the Salt Spring Island Multi Space (SIMS). 

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