A Forest of Issues Park Georgia’s golf facility hasn’t been built, yet, but it already has a decade of political history. By Stephen Vogler What does Whistler need right now, a golf teaching facility or an alluvial spruce forest five minutes from the village? If that were the only question surrounding Park Georgia’s golf teaching facility the issue might be simplified. Those who value natural lands, ecological diversity and eco-tourism would argue to keep the forest and scrap the golf facility. Those who place a greater value on man-made recreational amenities and user revenues would argue to build the golf facility. The battle lines would be clearly drawn. But the issue of the golf training facility, or depending on how you look at it, the spruce forest, is complicated by nearly a decade of previous decisions. In 1989, the council of the day called for development proposals that would include summer recreational amenities for the resort and community. The plan increased the bed unit ceiling from 45,000 to the present 52,500, and the accompanying public hearing was probably the most heated in Whistler’s history (right next to the Green Lake’s Golf Course hearing in the early 1990s — another project which was spawned by this call for summer recreational facilities). Park Georgia’s lands sit to the north of Lorimer Road, where the Whistler Racquet and Golf Resort Clubhouse, tennis courts and 40 townhouse units have so far been completed. On the approximately 20 hectares rezoned from RR1 to multi-residential in 1990, there remains to be built 85 more townhomes and the 425-room Hyatt Hotel. Park Georgia hopes to begin driving piles for the hotel this summer and offer units for sale in the fall. But it is the forested land on the other side of Blackcomb Way, next to Fitzsimmons’ Creek, that is the focus of the controversy. The golf training facility planned for those lands was originally a requirement before the hotel and remaining townhomes could be built. But in 1997, recognizing the environmental significance of the land, our present council passed a motion to delete the requirement for the golf amenity. "There were enough people on council that wanted to see that put forward," Mayor Hugh O’Reilly told Pique Newsmagazine. "There’s enough interest out there in the community to have that as a green space. We’ve removed all obstacles to try and facilitate that to happen. Now, that’s still their (Park Georgia’s) choice." But given the choice, Park Georgia clearly wants to go ahead with the golf facility, although no construction start date has been set. "The golf teaching facility is an amenity that can generate revenue and pay for itself," says Jim Moodie of Moodie Consultants, the firm representing Park Georgia. "It also has value to Park Georgia in terms of marketing the hotel and condos." Moodie goes on to cite other amenities Park Georgia has already provided for the community at a sole cost to the developer: $500,000 toward development of Spruce Grove Park, a 4 hectare wetland reserve, the extension of Blackcomb Way and the racquet club, which benefits both the community and the developer, but is a cost rather than a source of revenue. Moodie believes they have a balanced project in terms of amenities to the community and to the developer. As far as considering other uses for the golf facility lands, he says: "If we didn’t make money off the driving range, any use might be an okay use." But that purely economic argument doesn’t wash well with those interested in preserving the alluvial forest adjacent to Fitzsimmons Creek. Tom Cole, a registered professional forester and 25-year resident of Whistler, wrote to Park Georgia in January pointing out that the hybridized spruce-western red cedar forest on the land in question was one of the last refuges for such a forest on the Fitzsimmons Creek alluvial fan. He suggested the area be preserved as a natural refuge with possible construction of a low impact gazebo for observing the natural landscape — something he believed would be a unique marketing tool for Park Georgia’s hotel and condominiums. The argument that most of the alluvial forest has already been destroyed seems to cut both ways. Moodie wrote back to Cole saying: "As a resident for 25 years you have seen significant changes to the area that has now become the Town Centre. These changes have resulted in the loss of treed areas for development of the Village, the roads and parks and the day skier parking areas." He elaborated further to Pique, saying, "I do understand the argument of the alluvial fan, but I don’t see that argument as rational. We wouldn’t have built the village at all in that case." AWARE president Stephane Perron takes exception to that argument. "I would talk about balance when somebody raises an issue like that," he told Pique. "I mean, two wrongs don’t make a right. The fact that we’ve obliterated the rest of the alluvial forest with parking lots and shopping malls doesn’t make it right." Perron believes that, as a remaining example of what the village area once was in its natural state, the spruce forest owned by Park Georgia should be preserved. He points out that alluvial forest now makes up only 0.77 per cent of Whistler’s land base. "The angle that I’m coming from is that the responsibility is on the developers to be the stewards of their land," Perron says. "The right decision as corporate citizens is to look at the facts, at the data, and to develop the land accordingly. I mean hell, if they think they can put in a golf course and still protect an adequate representation of the plant communities — something that’s viable and sustainable — then I would respect their private developers’ right. But to go in there and basically just keep a buffer of big trees around is not adequate — the trees aren’t the main concern here, it’s the plants. The issue of bio-diversity and of rarity." The data which Perron would like to see respected by the developer is that being compiled by Bob Brett, a local forest ecologist. Brett began counting plant species in the area in April, when there was still a substantial snow cover, and his list is now well over one hundred species. "It’s an unusually rich ecosystem," he says. "That’s shown by the size of cedar and spruce, by the height of devil’s club and all the herbaceous species — lilies and ferns." Brett explains that the periodic flooding of alluvial forests creates rich soil and that the natural disturbance allows a wide variety of species to flourish. "There’s a lot happening here; not just a closed canopy forest of a few species. It’s very diverse both in species and in structure." Brett’s findings have been sent to Adolph Ceska, a botanist with the Ministry of Environment’s Conservation Data Centre. The centre identifies rare or endangered plant species and plant communities and classifies them according to a colour code, with red being more rare and endangered than blue. Perron says the early indications from Ceska suggest the area would almost certainly be blue-listed and quite likely red-listed in terms of its plant communities. He’s now awaiting a formal identification of the site as Brett’s completed findings are sent to the botanist. "The goal would be to see those plant communities protected," Perron says, "and to have an adequate representation of that type of alluvial forest." But in B.C., a recommendation from the Data Conservation Centre doesn’t have any binding power. "I’m really counting on Park Georgia to make the right decision for that land," Perron says, "and that they will take all those facts into account before they go ahead and develop." Moodie says Park Georgia is willing to listen to different positions and be flexible, "but at the same time," he says, "we’ve contributed a lot and aren’t interested in going through an eleventh hour round of extraction that would jeopardize the viability of the project." Early in 1997, Park Georgia offered to delete the entire golf facility if the municipality would increase the gross floor area of the hotel, agree to the deletion of five additional tennis courts and provide a cash payment or reduction of municipal charges to the tune of $3 million. Mayor O’Reilly points out why those negotiations never got off the ground. "They’re looking for some pretty significant compensation," he says. "I just don’t think we have the financial where-with-all." O’Reilly also says that not everyone in the community is against building the golf facility: "Some people think it was not a bad decision, so there’s no black and white here — it’s very grey." He points to the Chateau Whistler, which is planning to use the facility for their guests, as one of the major businesses in town who support it. But the fact that council passed the motion to delete the golf facility as a requirement suggests that a majority on council would prefer that it doesn’t go ahead. "What looked good nine years ago isn’t necessarily something we want to go forward with today," says Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "As far as I’m concerned that whole project was ill-conceived and it’s still sitting there as a huge scar, really." Wilhelm-Morden was a member of council in 1990, but was in the minority who voted against the project then. "The problem is, they’ve got the zoning," she says. "I think the majority of council don’t want to see that golf training facility go ahead, but whether the majority of council is willing to take the rather radical step of down-zoning and facing a law suit, I don’t know." In the nine years since Park Georgia’s project was conceived, environmental awareness in both the community and the council has grown considerably. But it remains to be seen how much bearing the will of the public will have on the issue of the golf teaching facility. Park Georgia has fulfilled all of its obligations with the municipality, and they now see no reason to give up the revenue of the golf facility. And why should they? They’re a development company based out of Vancouver with the primary objective of building their project and making it profitable. Ultimately, the job of looking out for the best interests of the community and the resort lies with the people of Whistler and their elected officials. If council receives more pressure from the community, it’s possible they’ll take a more serious look at negotiations with Park Georgia. It may be that the $3 million and other conditions are merely the developer’s initial bargaining position. O’Reilly describes the removal of the golf facility requirement as a "token gesture." If negotiations between the municipality and the developer were a game of slow pitch, a "token gesture" might be effective. But it appears Park Georgia is willing to play hardball.