The developers behind a multibillion-dollar ski resort proposed for southeastern B.C. will go back to the drawing board after the province's environment minister dealt the project a massive blow last week.
In a move that could spell the end for the controversial Jumbo Glacier Resort, a year-round ski resort planned for the Purcell Mountains west of Invermere, Minister Mary Polak has determined that the project has not been "substantially started."
"As a result, the environmental assessment certificate has expired and Glacier Resorts Ltd. cannot proceed with developing this project unless a new certificate is obtained," said a ministry release.
The decision came as a surprise to both proponents and critics of the project, and essentially brings the developers back to pre-planning stages 25 years after the idea for the resort was first floated.
"In a word, (we are) disappointed," said Tomasso Oberti, vice-president of the project's management company. "We're basically assessing the situation still and reviewing our options."
Among those options, Oberti said, is a judicial review of the minister's determination, which was based on "the physical activities that had taken place at the project site," including pouring the concrete foundation for a day lodge before the environmental certificate was set to expire in October. B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) later determined the lodge was in an avalanche path and ordered a halt to its construction.
Part of the issue, Oberti said, was that developers were left with little time to meet the EAO deadline after the project was officially approved in 2012 once permit approvals and the site's narrow construction window were factored in.
"Once you get provincial approval, you can't just automatically show up the next day with a cement truck and start building," he said, noting that obtaining approval on various permit requirements took up most of 2013. "On top of that the construction season is very limited there in that you basically only have August and September to build because of the snow and elevation."
Another likely option would be for the proponents to scale back the size of the development "to the point that it falls below the Environmental Assessment Act threshold," noted Oberti, meaning that it wouldn't require approval from the EAO. "It would be a much smaller project, but it would still have glacier access, and it would still be year-round skiing in a remarkable ski area."
Among the long-time opponents to the resort who applauded Polak's decision was the NDP's Norm MacDonald, MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke.
"I'm actually really pleased. In many ways it was an obvious decision," he said. "Having said that, there was so much that had been illogical about what the B.C. Liberals have done with this project, including setting up a fake municipality, that it still came as a bit of a surprise."
In a move that some have claimed was unconstitutional, the province formed the Jumbo Glacier Resort Municipality in 2012 with the appointment of a mayor and two councillors, despite the community having no residents.
MacDonald is now pushing for the immediate dissolution of a municipality he called "an abomination."
"It's absurd and offensive to pretend that (the Jumbo municipality) is a democratic institution," he added.
The creation of the municipality was done to give officials "enduring certainty" to questions around the resort's land use, explained Jumbo Mayor Greg Deck.
"I'm not surprised that opponents to the project are calling for something immediate to happen, but after 25 years, you don't just say, 'Oh darn it, I guess we'll quit.' I think that's a little bit unrealistic," said Deck, who criticized the lack of clarity in the minister's decision.
"It was a carefully worded statement that didn't speak to the merits of the project at all," he said. "It was actually quite technical and very explicit about how much of it was up to the minister's discretion."
If negotiations between Victoria and developers fall through, the $1 million in provincial grant money that has been allocated to Jumbo's council for its five-year term would be reallocated elsewhere, Deck said.
Meanwhile, a case being heard in B.C. Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Jumbo municipality will go ahead as planned next month, with hearings scheduled for July 15 to 18.
Until that case is settled, the Jumbo saga is "not over by any means," warned David Reid, executive director of the West Kootenays Ecosociety, the environmental firm that's fighting the municipality in court.
"The municipality has just been working on doing an Official Community Plan that zones for a bunch of ski resorts and condos... so as long as that municipality is there waiting to approve projects that fit its community plan, Jumbo Valley is at risk," added Reid, who commended Minister Polak's "right and reasonable decision" from last Thursday.
"We think it sends a clear message that the residents of the Kootenays and B.C. don't want this project. It's one more big, fat nail in a coffin we hope stays shut."