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Editorial

Development as an issue: How do we handle what we’re committed to?

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Ever since Myrtle and Alex Philip built their Rainbow Lodge on Alta Lake back in 1915 there have been concerns about the size and scale of development in this valley. And rightfully so.

It was a government report in the early 1970s that raised concerns about the number of cabins being built in Whistler, all with septic fields, and their impact on the water quality of the lakes. That report led to the incorporation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975 and made the first order of business the construction of a municipal sewer system.

With only a few buildings completed in the Whistler Village, and with several foundations that lay unfinished for years, the recession of the early 1980s led some to question the size and pace of development in Whistler. The Vancouver Sun opined in 1982 that: "It’s too bad that Whistler’s bubble has burst, but that’s what often happens when people get over-ambitious and try to do too much too soon. If the village hadn’t tried to turn itself into a world class ski resort almost overnight, it wouldn’t be in the difficulties it’s in now."

In 1988 the municipality made the controversial decision to expand its cap on development to allow for construction of summer amenities, including the Nicklaus North and Chateau Whistler golf courses and the Whistler Tennis Resort.

In the 1990s, with the economy sound and Whistler on the map, the pace of development in Village North surprised everyone, and concerned many. For several years it seemed like there were just two seasons in Whistler: winter and construction. And combined with the developments on the Blackcomb Benchlands, Whistler’s hotel capacity, or bed base, had grown enormously by the end of the century.

Today, as Whistler tries to turn around four years of declining numbers and restart the local economy in the middle of a municipal election, there are some who fear Whistler will try to build its way out of its problems. This school of thought believes that some of the candidates are willing to trade development rights for some of the things Whistler still needs, such as affordable housing, and that another wave of development could further expand the built environment in the valley.

This may come as a surprise to some, but it’s not the next council elected on Nov. 19 that is going to determine the scale and pace of development over the next few years, it’s the current and previous councils that have already done that. Consider the developments that Whistler is already committed to, morally if not legally. They include: the Rainbow site, which currently envisions 1,200 people living there ; the athletes village, which has to accommodate 2,500 athletes and could consist of 475 units; the redevelopment of the tennis resort, which is zoned for a 450-room hotel but could be turned into fewer condos; the redevelopment of the Shoestring Lodge, including the affordable housing the developer still owes Whistler from the Westin project; the Nita Lake Lodge and associated market and resident-restricted housing; the Alta Lake Lodge subdivision; and the London Mountain Lodge development. And then there are commitments to First Nations, who have their eyes on a piece of land above the Rainbow site, the highways works yard opposite Alta Vista and perhaps other parcels. What formula will be used to determine the First Nations’ development rights has not been made public, so there is little indication what size or type of development will happen there.

There is also development happening on the outskirts of Whistler, including 60+ lots to the north, a RV Park near Brandywine and perhaps some future development near the Nordic centre in the Callagahan Valley.

Some of these developments will bring much needed affordable housing for Whistler residents; some will create new market housing; and some will add to Whistler’s already large tourist accommodation bed base. The point is, at a time when Whistler is struggling to fill existing hotel rooms – remember that the second Pan Pacific hotel and the Four Seasons Residences are new this winter – and there are more on the way, why would anyone commit to more development and try to build our way out of the current economic malaise?

The choice this election is not between development or no development; it’s how do we manage the enormous amount of development that Whistler is already committed to.

The Protected Area Network strategy is one tool, but an even more effective one is regular public input. The athletes village, for instance, is a huge development. Its shape and content, and the opportunities and risks it may afford, have just barely been explored, at least in a public forum. But the shovels are expected to go into the ground in the spring.

Some type of development is going to take place there. Making sure it’s the best development it can be for Whistler should be an election issue. Additional development beyond what is already committed shouldn’t even be on the radar.

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