What’s going on with the Cultus Lake Park Board?

Owned by Chilliwack, inside the FVRD, run by a park board—Cultus Lake may be one of the most unusual communities in the Fraser Valley. We dive into its history, and what the 2022 election has in store for its board.

By Grace Kennedy | September 23, 2022 |5:00 am

Cultus Lake is a place of significance and story for the Stó:lō people. In the summer, it becomes a magnet for tourists from across the Lower Mainland. And on Oct. 15, it will be the location of the Fraser Valley’s most unusual election.

One of only two park boards* in the country, the Cultus Lake Park Board is responsible for governing Cultus Lake Park, a 640-acre park located between the City of Chilliwack, the Soowhalie First Nation, and Cultus Lake Provincial Park.

Unlike the provincial park, which was designed to be an oasis for all British Columbians, Cultus Lake Park was originally established as a haven for Chilliwack residents. But over the years, the park has grown and Cultus residents themselves have taken on more control of the community.

*The Vancouver Park Board is often considered the only park board in Canada, and its scope is slightly different from the Cultus Lake Park Board. While the Vancouver Park Board is responsible for all parks in the City of Vancouver, the Cultus Lake Park Board is responsible for only the Cultus Lake area.

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What is the Cultus Lake Park Board?

Swí:lhcha had long been a powerful place for the Stó:lō people—powerful and dangerous. By the late 1800s the lake had become known as cultus, a Chinook jargon word meaning “bad” or “worthless.”

(The reasons are varied: some stories link the name Cultus back to the original flood that formed the lake, others say it became cultus when Indigenous locals sought to impress the lake’s dangers to newcomers. A common settler story says the lake became cultus when its spiritual power had been used up. At least one researcher says that story was used to help settlers lay claim to the lake area.)

It was at this time that the federal government took control of the area, annexing it as part of the “railway belt” that would send the Canadian Pacific Railway across the country—and connect British Columbia to the rest of Canada.

In the following decades, the number of summer tourists heading down to Cultus Lake’s shores multiplied. And then, in 1924, the federal government gave the land back to the two Chilliwack municipalities (the City of Chilliwack and the Township of Chilliwhack) to govern instead. The land wasn’t included in either municipality’s boundary, but instead became a separate area intended for park purposes only.

In 1932, the two municipalities asked the province to create a board which would be responsible for the area. The board would have representatives from the two communities and would be responsible for “the joint regulation, management, maintenance, and improvement of Cultus Lake Park.”

In the 90 years since, little has changed in the board’s mandate—although much has changed around it. The two Chilliwacks amalgamated. The resort’s resident population grew. And Cultus Lake itself now sees more than 1.5 million visitors each year.

The City of Chilliwack, the park board, and the Fraser Valley Regional District considered repealing the Cultus Lake Park Act—and disbanding the park board—in 2004. But the change was never made.

The only two financially feasible ways to dissolve the board would be to extend the City of Chilliwack’s boundaries to include Cultus Lake or to turn the area into its own village. Ultimately, neither option went forward: Chilliwack wouldn’t extend its boundaries to bring the park in, and the province wouldn’t commit to repealing the act.

Cultus Lake remains a community run by the FVRD and the park board—and not the city itself.

What does the Cultus Lake Park Board do?

The Cultus Lake Park Board is responsible for managing Cultus Lake Park. No one owns land within the park. Instead, the roughly 1,500 residents lease their properties from the Cultus Lake Park Board on 21-year terms (businesses lease on five-year terms). The board oversees fire management, bylaw enforcement, parking, special event licenses, and garbage pick up.

Technically located in the Fraser Valley Regional District’s Electoral Area H—although officially owned by the City of Chilliwack—Cultus Lake is governed by both an electoral area director and a board of five commissioners.

The five commissioners are made up of two groups: two commissioners from the City of Chilliwack and three from Cultus Lake itself. These five people make strategic decisions for the future of the park—which has evolved into a resort community all its own.

Originally managed by seven commissioners from Chilliwack’s two municipalities, the composition of the board changed when the communities amalgamated. In 1980, the reconfiguration saw five commissioners elected from Chilliwack and two from Cultus Lake. (A decade later, in 1991, Cultus Lake would have approximately 960 full-time residents.)

In 2014, the balance of power on the board shifted again.

Gary and Sue Lister, full-time residents of Cultus Lake, had begun a petition back in 2012 asking for the Cultus Lake Park Board to be redesigned to give residents more say in their own community. The petition eventually garnered more than 900 signatures.

But when they took it to the Cultus Lake Park Board, the commissioners passed a resolution against it.

“That for me was a perfect demonstration of how the park board was not championing the will of the people it served,” then-MLA Laurie Throness told the Chilliwack Progress.

Throness took up the Listers’ cause, getting the City of Chilliwack on board with the proposal, and then bringing the petition to the provincial legislature. In the spring of 2014, the provincial government agreed to make the changes. Instead of seven commissioners, the board would go down to five. Only two would be from Chilliwack; the rest would be made up of Cultus Lake residents.

“Someone said this is a watershed moment for Cultus Lake,” Gary Lister told the Progress in 2014.

The change, although welcomed by Cultus Lake residents and supported by Chilliwack itself, wouldn’t remove all challenges for the park board.

Unlike municipalities or the Fraser Valley Regional District, the park board doesn’t have the ability to collect taxes from its residents. Instead, all of its money comes from parking fees, revenue from Sunnyside Campground, and property leases.

That means the park board is limited in what it can do. The Cultus Lake Strategic Plan, for example, notes that much of the infrastructure in Cultus Lake Park is aging and needs to be replaced—but portions of that work would need to be managed by the Fraser Valley Regional District. (The park board started construction of the sewer system in the 1980s, for example, but today it is maintained by the FVRD.)

The park is officially part of Electoral Area H in the Fraser Valley Regional District, and that organization is responsible for water and sewer connections, building permits, and building inspections. Residents do pay taxes to the FVRD for flood protection, as part of a service area bylaw. (You can read more about those, and how service area bylaws impacted disaster repairs in November, here.) The FVRD notes, however, that the park board is responsible for funding services and infrastructure for residents in the Cultus Lake area.

What is going on with the Cultus Lake Park Board election?

On Oct. 15, the roughly 1,500 leaseholders in Cultus Lake Park will head to the polls to elect three commissioners to sit on the park board. (Ordinarily, they would also head to an FVRD polling station to elect their electoral area director—however, this year Taryn Dixon has been acclaimed for Electoral Area H.)

Those electors will have a choice between incumbents Larry Payeur and Casey Smit, and newcomers John Beesley, Erika Jartved, Tom Moul, Christy Ovens, and Cory Pickering. People can vote by mail, at the advance polls on Oct. 5 at the Cultus Lake Park boardroom, or on Oct. 15 at Cultus Lake Community Hall.

Typically, Chilliwack residents would also get a chance to vote in their preferred park board commissioners. But for this election, only two stepped up: Darcy Bauer and Kirk Dzaman. They will be acclaimed to their positions. Both also served on the board during the previous term.

(Who will be elected to represent the interests of Cultus Lake residents will be revealed after polls close on Oct. 15. Check back on our results page to watch the votes be counted in real time.)

The Cultus Lake Community Association will be hosting an all-candidates meeting at Cultus Lake Community School on Oct. 5 at 7pm. Anyone interested in learning more about the candidates, and what issues are important to them as commissioners, is welcome to attend.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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