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Nita Lake Lodge proposal to go to public hearing

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A partial council moved forward with the newest land development project in Whistler at Monday’s council meeting, despite heavy opposition from one councillor.

Two other members of council, Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and Councillor Gordon McKeever, excused themselves from voting on the Nita Lake Lodge development project due to conflicts of interest, leaving five councillors to vote on the complex land deal, slated for Creekside.

"This is a significant change in the future of Whistler," said Councillor Ken Melamed, adding that this is a very contentious land deal.

"(The mayor’s and Councillor McKeever’s) input should be able to be received on this very important crucial issue."

The incomplete council vote was just one of a litany of Melamed’s opposing points after listening to a lengthy presentation by the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation in a packed council chambers.

"A project like this is complicated... We’ve done the best we can," said John Haibeck, president of the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation.

Haibeck has asked council to rezone three tracts of land for the Nita Lake Lodge project. They are in brief:

· a three acre parcel of land at the end of Lake Placid Road for an 80-room boutique lodge and a brand new multi-million dollar train station;

· an adjoining 23-acre piece of land on the west side of the railway tracks for 14 single family homes and 40 townhouse style employee housing units and;

· 27 acres of Alpha Creek wetland, located north-west of Function Junction. This site would then be subdivided into 25 acres for preservation and the two remaining acres, bordering Alta Lake Road, will have apartment style buildings with 22 employee housing units.

In order to build any of this however, the developer needs bed units, a growth management tool unique to Whistler.

Bed units were created in the past to ensure Whistler does not overdevelop.

"We have a cap placed on development to make sure we don’t grow," said local consultant Sharon Jensen, who is working on the Nita Lake Lodge development.

Jensen added that council’s policy in the past has been to consider applications over the bed unit cap if they provide worthwhile community benefits.

She reminded council of the Emerald Forest deal where the municipality created new market bed units above and beyond the cap for the first time in order to preserve the forest.

Haibeck however doesn’t need to go over Whistler’s development cap.

More than 20 years ago the Alpha Creek parcel of land was zoned for a campground development and as such, the land has 242 bed units.

Haibeck proposes transferring those 242 bed units sitting on the Alpha Creek wetlands and developing them on the two Creekside sites.

These are some of the last remaining bed units to be developed in Whistler. As they are quickly running out the bed units have become an increasingly desirable tool for leverage in development schemes, according to Melamed.

"The bed units were conceptual and as far as I’m concerned they don’t exist anymore," said Melamed.

"We are not mandated to use them."

The Alpha Creek bed units would allow the developer to build the 80-room lodge and the 14 single-family lots with some leftover. Those would go back to the municipality.

"They’re leaving bed units on this and I think there are some developers in this room that might think they’re crazy," said Councillor Caroline Lamont, drawing a chuckle from the audience.

Twenty-five acres of the Alpha Creek site would then be preserved as wetlands.

Also known as the Zen lands, these delicate wetlands have been high on the municipality’s wish list for conservation for many years.

While Melamed in principle supports preserving the wetlands, he said this is not the deal to do it.

The sensitive Alpha Creek wetlands are located within a larger 100-acre tract of land on the north side of Function Junction stretching northwest to Alta Lake Road.

Melamed said severing off one section of land would compromise the municipality’s ability to preserve the whole site at a later date.

"The highest and best objective in this case is protection of the entire parcel," he said.

Melamed’s list of concerns didn’t stop there.

He also raised concerns about the changing face of Creekside.

In her staff presentation to council senior planner Kim Needham said that the Nita Lake Lodge project generally conforms to the 1991 Whistler Creek Study, which although old, is still the guiding policy document for development in Creekside.

The Whistler Creek Study suggests that there be an anchor building with a small hotel or lodge at the end of Lake Placid Road.

The study also suggests that there be a park in the area.

"That’s not economically feasible," said Needham.

But Melamed said there aren’t many parks in Creekside, adding that the development plants a large hotel in a very constrained area.

"Creekside is becoming overdeveloped in the way the village has," he said.

In recent years Intrawest has been revamping the Creekside area with high-end restaurants and hotel/timeshares like First Tracks. Next on the list is the construction of a multi-level parking lot and Franz’s Trail with its commercial business.

Melamed said Intrawest promised to protect the heart and soul of Whistler’s first community and original ski base as it moved along with its developments.

"That didn’t happen," he said.

"The heart and soul has evaporated from Creekside."

He sees the Nita Lake Lodge project in much the same light.

"I’ve been opposed to this since I first saw it two and a half years ago and there’s been nothing that’s come forward to make me change my mind.

"I represent a constituency that feels Whistler is already developed."

He was the lone opposing voice on the five-member council. The four remaining councillors voted on moving the project to the next level, giving first and second readings to the necessary bylaws and scheduling a public hearing.

Councillor Kristi Wells said in the 10 years that she’s sat on council she’s never seen so much community input in a project, adding that she looks forward to hearing comments from community members at the public hearing.

The extensive public consultation process has changed the Nita Lake Lodge development substantially from the initial concept, as it adapted to the concerns of the local community.

"That’s what I call responsible development," said Haibeck.

Among the community benefits are the preservation of the 25 acres of wetland and the development of 221 employee beds on two sites. These employee beds are seven times more employee housing than is required for the development itself.

Haibeck is also offering a community cash contribution.

Over half a million dollars is slated for a new X-ray machine at the Whistler Health Care Centre and another half a million dollars will go the Community Foundation of Whistler to set up a new community health endowment fund.

The project is also connected to a new privately owned rail scheme, designed to revive passenger rail travel to Whistler with a tourist train.

With a revamped train station beside the lodge Whistler Rail Tours, which is working hand-in-hand with the lodge development, is projecting more than 150,000 annual cruise ship visitors to Whistler who wouldn’t come up here otherwise. This is turn would spin off almost half a billion dollars into the Whistler economy by 2010, according to an economic study.

This was a big push for Councillor Nick Davies in supporting the project.

Davies said there are many in the community who feel that diversifying Whistler’s economy is the best way to proceed into the future in light of an ageing baby boomer population, the external threat of global warming and the recurring cycles of war in Third World countries, among other things.

"It’s prudent planning to attempt to diversify this community," he said.

There will be a public hearing on the Nita Lake Lodge project on April 28 at Millennium Place. Community members are invited to speak out about any concerns or in support of the project before council decides to move to the next stage in the development process.

See related story on Whistler Rail Tours on the next page.