The Agricultural Land Commission has given very cautious approval to allow an international private school on farmland in the Pemberton Valley.
In a six-page decision dated April 22 the commissioners gave conditional approval to situate a private GEMS school on the Ravens Crest property, near the Pemberton Hillside area. The conditions of building the school take up half the length of the decision.
GEMS is a Dubai-based company that stresses an international approach to K-12 education. It has over 30 schools operating in the Middle East and 11 in England. GEMS in Pemberton would be the first school of its kind in North America.
"I think it's a great step forward for this project," said Cam McIvor, president of Ravens Crest Developments, which is building the school. "This will allow the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District resolution to come into effect which instructed staff to move forward with zoning."
In its decision the commission stressed that most of the land under application is suitable for agriculture and said the school could have a positive impact on that use if its development is accompanied by "very substantial improvements" to agricultural infrastructure in the Pemberton Valley.
Those improvements include getting Ravens Crest involved in solving flooding issues at Two Mile Creek - a body of water that's situated about four kilometers from the GEMS site.
Two Mile Creek bisects a property at 7476 Prospect Street that belongs to Bob Menzel and Susan Perry. The commission recently denied those owners an application to subdivide their approximately 30-acre property into nine one-acre lots because they didn't feel they could farm on it.
The property has been subject to yearly flooding from the creek that has become so serious it's submerged some of the Menzel's livestock in mud. The commission, however, said the plan would reduce its agricultural potential and that improved drainage could make it easier to farm the land.
It's now asking Ravens Crest to play a role in improving the agricultural capability of that creek as a condition of building the school, even though the properties have nothing to do with each other.
Though it doesn't say Ravens Crest has to solve the flooding problems on its own, the decision orders the developer to "engage in meaningful consultation with the Pemberton Valley Dyking District" to propose a "level of participation" in flooding issues at Two Mile Creek.
McIvor hasn't yet figured out what role Ravens Crest will play in making that happen.
"I believe they're looking at overall benefit to the valley as a function of this program," he said. "Before we draw any conclusions on that, we want to sit down and investigate what the benefits are and that's something we'll need to look at in the next little while."
Among other conditions, the commission is asking Ravens Crest to ensure that two hectares of the best soils on the site be set aside for an agricultural education program and that it consult with the Lil'wat Nation to ensure that its younger members have opportunities to partake in the program.
Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy said the commission's decision took a "reasonable and balanced approach" meeting its mandate to protect the "viability of the farming industry," and allowing the community to take advantage of an economic development opportunity.
"It's going to be one of those win-wins," he said.
As for the myriad conditions, McIvor seems confident he can meet them all.
"I don't think there's anything unattainable in there, (but) I think there's a bit of work to clarify them," he said. "Other than that I'm quite pleased that they've decided to move forward and their conditions are fairly consistent with their mandate for the most part."