A proposed retreat development by a partner of a controversial Catholic organization came before a public hearing last night.
(The Sept. 23 public hearing took place after Pique went to press.)
The Institute of Research, Communication and Development, a business partner of the Opus Dei organization, wants to establish a spiritual retreat centre for youth on a plot of land it owns in the Britannia Beach community south of Squamish.
Britannia Beach residents have raised numerous concerns about the proposal - chief among them is that developers are working in concert with Opus Dei to set up a commercial development within their community.
Opus Dei is a controversial organization primarily due to its depiction in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code , a novel that posits the organization was complicit in a cover-up of the "fact" that Jesus Christ had a daughter.
A Sept. 17 article in the Province newspaper said residents opposed to the development were lending DVD copies of The Da Vinci Code film as a form of protest against the project.
Fadi Sarraf, president of the Institute of Research, Communication and Development, said Opus Dei will be responsible for the content in spiritual workshops but the Institute will run the centre. Opus Dei is thus a partner and not the owner.
"We have entrusted the spiritual activities to Opus Dei," he said in an interview. "I think our conference centre will contribute a lot to the richness of the community... The people working at the conference centre will be part of the community.
"You have people who will travel to take part in activities there. Many of the people that use our facilities or retreats come year after year. Even though they're not permanent they form part of the community in that sense."
The retreat, he said, can host groups besides Opus Dei that share Judeo-Christian values but they'll have to approach the institute if they wish to do so. The Institute already works with Opus Dei on a retreat centre in the Caledon Hills area near Toronto.
Speaking to the controversies raised about Opus Dei in Brown's novel, Sarraf, a member himself, said the book is fiction but he did confirm that some members practice "mortification" - specifically the practice of disciplining the body, sometimes through physical exertion.
Sarraf admitted that some members use a celice on themselves - a kind of belt with spikes on the inside - but said the practice has been around for centuries.
"It was not something invented by Opus Dei," he said, adding that mortification is a "minor part" of what the organization is all about.
"The main message is about trying to find God in your daily life."
The 66-acre site is currently zoned as "Resource Use" under Squamish-Lillooet Regional District bylaws. It is designated as "Mixed Residential" in the Howe Sound East Master Plan. Two bylaw amendments are thus required in order to situate a retreat centre on the property.
The proponent hopes to rezone only 40 acres of the 66-acre property and put up a retreat centre in two phases. First is the conference/retreat centre itself, which is expected to be about 40,000 square feet and include conference areas, administration, staff facilities, 28 bedrooms and outdoor recreational facilities, according to a district memo from 2007.
The second phase is a youth pavilion of approximately 20,000 square feet that will include amenities, a chapel and 22 bedrooms, according to the same memo.
While some residents ground their opposition in concerns about Opus Dei, others claim to be worried that the subject property is meant for residential use under the Howe Sound East Master Plan.
Ron Fulber, a resident of Britannia Beach for 23 years, said he's concerned about tour buses running through a community of just over 100 people, and he's doubly concerned that the area has already been considered for residential use.
"This has nothing to do with religion," he said. "We have a single cul de sac community, they want to put it at the end of that cul de sac area. I'm pretty choked about it personally."