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Nita Lake developer defends Liberal contributions

NDP question use of MEVA in legislature

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Developer John Haibeck’s contributions to the provincial Liberal party came under attack last week in the legislature just as the government approved his development project on the shores of Nita Lake.

"British Columbians are tired of special deals for friends of this government," said Jenny Kwan opposition MLA during question period.

She pointed out that Haibeck had donated more than $3,200 to the provincial Liberals through the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation in 2002 and the following year Whistler Rail Tours, another company Haibeck is partnered in, donated more than $8,000.

"Will the Minister of Sustainable Resource Management table today all correspondence between his office and the B.C. Liberal campaign donor who’s benefiting from this arbitrary cancellation of a Supreme Court decision?" asked Kwan.

The question was dismissed immediately by George Abbott, Minister of Sustainable Resource Management as the opposition climbing "that grassy knoll of conspiracy."

He explained during the question period that the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act, known as a MEVA, is a tool that the NDP also used during its time in power.

"For the member to suggest there’s something untoward here... She should look back on the record of her government over 10 years, during which time they used the MEVA as an instrument to correct administrative oversights," said Abbott.

"MEVA is a well-used tool to work out issues, administrative failures at the municipal level, and this MEVA is entirely appropriate in doing that."

Haibeck also dismissed the allegations that the government overturned a decision by the Supreme Court based on his campaign contributions.

"First and foremost (the government) is not overturning it because of me," he said this week.

"It’s the Municipal Enabling and Validating Act, the operative word there is municipal. It doesn’t say Developer’s Enabling Act. It was the municipality that went to the province, not I."

Haibeck readily admits that he contributed to the Liberal government, even though by comparison to some campaign contributions, his donations were small.

"We, like every other person who believes in this government, have given contributions to the Liberal party, albeit very small when you consider it’s over a two year period, and it’s from two different companies.

"And when you compare that with what the unions give to the NDP, which is in the millions, (Kwan) has no right to draw that conclusion."

On Thursday, May 20, the province approved the development bylaw for the Nita Lake Lodge under MEVA, despite a Supreme Court ruling in March which declared the development bylaw illegal.

Haibeck said he was totally taken aback by Kwan’s remarks, particularly because she is a member of the NDP.

"I find it really strange that she would take a position supporting a billionaire, who is a non-resident, doesn’t pay any (income) taxes over here and doesn’t create any employment," he said.

"I mean, it’s totally out of context with what the NDP stands for."

Last October, as Whistler council adopted the bylaws for the Nita Lake Lodge development, a wealthy Whistler homeowner filed a writ in the Supreme Court.

Australian Keith Lambert, who owns a large second home on the shores of Nita Lake, claimed the development bylaw was illegal.

In March the court agreed that the bylaw as written was in fact illegal and construction on the project was stopped.

An appeal process was underway when the province announced last week that it was stepping in, much to the relief of Haibeck and the municipality.

Haibeck knew that a lengthy appeal process would have ultimately crippled his financing.

"We’re very relieved," said Haibeck.

The five-month setback has cost the developers $3 million he said. That total includes legal fees, interests costs, cancelled contracts, and lost business in the lodge.

The delay has also pushed the project into winter construction for 2005, which will drive up the costs even more.

The legal challenge has also been costly for the municipality.

"We’re happy to move forward from this and stop paying legal bills and starting to build some affordable housing and continuing to revitalize the Creekside," said Acting Mayor Caroline Lamont.

The employee housing units, which would have been delivered for the 2004-05 season, won’t be up in time to house November’s stream of new Whistler employees arriving in town.

"We will not be able to make the deadline, thanks to Mr. Lambert," said Haibeck.

"Maybe he’d be glad to take (employees) into his house."

Though the development has been pushed back, the approval of the bylaw at the provincial level means that construction can begin once again. Work crews are slated to begin work this week.

They will be building an 80-room boutique lodge and a train station on the south shores of Nita Lake in Creekside, along with 14 single-family homes off the Alta Lake Road on the west side of the lake.

The train station component was an integral part of the province using the MEVA because it is a key part to expanding passenger railway service and tourism throughout the province.

It will also play a key role in the Olympics.

"The station itself was in the Olympic bid," said Haibeck, adding that during the Olympics the station will be key to moving thousands of people to the alpine events in Whistler.

The latest deadline to grant a passenger rail franchise on the line has come and gone without any decisions.

It has come down to two companies, Whistler Rail Tours, which Haibeck is partnered in, and Rocky Mountain Railtours.

Haibeck suggests the delay is partly due to the fact that two very good passenger rail proposals are currently on the table.

He predicts the service will be awarded in late June.

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