Let's talk. That was the message Whistler councillors sent to the community last week as they put the brakes on the infill housing initiative until municipal staff draft a detailed communication plan.
"For something that is so critical to the character of our neighbourhoods, there has to be a public engagement process that goes above and beyond," said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, who spearheaded the motion last Tuesday evening.
"Something we are horribly guilty of at the Resort Municipality of Whistler is we make the assumption that just because we are putting information out there or that we have an open house that we are creating all these opportunities for people to come out.
"All too often it comes back and bites us in the backend because we seem to think just because we are giving those opportunities we are communicating well with the community."
Four of the five councillors at last week's meeting voted to suspend the process at second reading until municipal staff come up with a comprehensive, in-depth community outreach plan.
Ted Milner, the only councillor at the meeting who didn't support the motion, had separate concerns about the infill-housing program in the south of Alpine Meadows. Mayor Ken Melamed and Councillor Ralph Forsyth were both absent.
Infill housing has been on the books since 2004. In a nutshell, it involves large lots accommodating more suites, either by splitting the property, allowing multiple suites on the land or allowing duplexes.
For example, as things stand today, people owning property zoned RS1 - primarily found in Alpine Meadows, Emerald, Alta Vista, White Gold and parts of Brio - can have either a suite inside a house or a suite in a separate building, but they can't have both.
"The infill initiatives we are now proposing for this community attempt to expand on the choices already permitted in the secondary suites," explained municipal housing planner Guy Patterson. "We are not trying to create more floor area. The idea is using existing allowable floor area and dividing it up in different ways."
Specifically, if council adopts the infill-housing program, property owners in Alpine South would be allowed to:
• Split their property into two lots, one of which could be as small as 400 square metres, as long as their originally property is larger than 1,100 square metres. One of the two lots would become resident-restricted and a housing agreement with the municipality would be registered on title;
• Have both a suite inside their house and a suite in a separate building, with no more than two suites on a property; or
• Create a duplex with two units of approximately equal size. One of the units would become resident restricted and a housing agreement with the municipality would be registered on title.
Patterson said municipal staff will likely announce their communication plan this fall, depending on how much work they have to do to prepare for the Winter Olympics in February.
The municipality has already held three open houses focused on infill housing, in November 2005, March 2006 and April 2008. For the last open house, all residents in the Alpine South area, which is all of Alpine Meadows south of 19 Mile Creek, received a notice in the mail.
The last open house also revealed that while most people are OK with the resident-restricted component of infill housing, the price restriction component raised some eyebrows. Also, some people had concerns about how the project might transform the neighbourhood.
Both the split lots and duplexes would be subject to occupancy and price restrictions. As things are proposed, the first sale of an infill-divided property may be negotiated by the seller and qualified purchaser. That price will become the base price against which future maximum sale prices will be calculated, according to the Consumer Price Index.
Staff have also recommended that council consider increasing the maximum allowable floor space ratio for smaller employee lots and duplexes from 3.5 to four.
Last week, Milner also asked staff to look at the legal side of changing all the zoning in Alpine South.
"I think if someone lays down a very sizeable investment and buys a property that is in an RS1 zone, it seems to me we have a responsibility to protect their zoning," said Milner. "I don't see how we can downzone people just at will. I think there will be a lot of resistance to this."
Milner added that with the price restrictions on the split lots and duplexes he doesn't understand what the financial incentive would be for anyone to do this.
To this, Acting Mayor Chris Quinlan replied that the financial incentive could come from owners who have already built up enough equity in their household.
"This would give them an opportunity to cash out some value of the property while still maintaining residency," he said.