As the community starts to consider proposals for a "learning campus based around a university" (WhistlerU) the proponent is focusing heavily on the partnerships being developed and estimated benefits on the local economy.
However, relatively little has been mentioned about the controversial site being suggested for the campus, AWARE would like to redress that balance. To be clear, AWARE is not against a university, should the community decide this is appropriate for Whistler, we simply believe the site proposed for WhistlerU is of huge environmental importance to Whistler and should remain undeveloped.
In Whistler, over 70 per cent of our original wetlands have been lost to development or draining. The Millar Creek and Alpha Creek wetlands (found south of Creekside and in an area often referred to locally as the Zen Lands) represent the largest remaining wetland within Whistler's developed boundaries. As with all environmental systems, these areas cannot be considered in isolation, and wetlands in particular, are extremely sensitive to changes in the areas that surround them or have impacts upon them.
Since the early '90s various development proposals have been brought to successive councils, to up-zone the upland areas adjacent to the Millar Creek and Alpha Creek Wetlands. Throughout this time AWARE's stance has been that the site should be protected, and it is perhaps indicative that consecutive councils have refused large-scale developments on the site. The landowners have been granted zoning for four single-family homes, and while AWARE believes development on the site should be entirely avoided, we understand the challenges in downzoning lands.
While the learning campus proposals include design techniques and new technologies to reduce the development's environmental impacts, it is still clear that four single-family homes would have far less impact than sufficient one-bedroom/studio accommodations to house up to 1,500 students. Additional to the substantial accommodations, the site would also be supporting lecture facilities, cafeterias, study areas and parking. In fact, during a recent presentation to council it was revealed that the development proposed for this upland area is nearly a million square feet, which equates in size to the original Whistler Village proposals.
This scale of development would have unavoidable impacts on the wetlands areas, such as increased human access to the wetlands and a complete change in the nutrient (or pollutant) run-off entering the ecosystem, as well as impacts on flora, fauna and wildlife using the area.
Despite the proponent's claim that impacts can be mitigated through buffer zones and other measures it is our community, not the developers, who define what can be considered an acceptable sacrifice in the name of development. The reason many Whistlerites invest time and energy into public consultation and feedback is to clearly establish our community's values and objectives.