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Opus Dei opposition persists in Britannia

Religion not an issue, housing and nature of community is



Britannia Beach residents are standing fast in their opposition to a proposed retreat centre that will host "spiritual workshops" by a controversial Catholic organization.

On Sept. 23, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District hosted a public hearing on bylaws that would permit a spiritual retreat centre planned for a 66-acre site above the former mining community.

The Montreal-based Institute for Research, Communication and Development owns the site and is looking to rezone 33 acres to house a retreat centre that would be built in two phases. The first is the conference/retreat centre itself, which the Institute expects will be about 40,000 square feet and include 28 bedrooms, conference areas and administration headquarters.

The second phase is a youth pavilion about 20,000 square feet in size that will include 22 bedrooms, a chapel and other amenities, according to a regional district memo from 2007.

Spiritual workshops at the retreat are to be run by Opus Dei, a Catholic organization that was vilified in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code as a shadowy cult that hides church secrets and whose members mutilate themselves.

Neither Brown's novel nor religion are figuring much in opposition to the project, but some Britannia residents are nevertheless concerned that the property is being used as a retreat centre and not for housing, as is intended in the Howe Sound East Master Plan.

"It changes the nature of the community that we've been struggling to maintain," said Ralph Fulber, a 22-year resident of Britannia Beach. "We've articulated the kind of vision that we have. It really doesn't include having a larger building with an alternative use to housing, single-family dwelling housing. We want it to be a community where children can live."

Fulber was one of about 60 people to attend the public hearing. Some at the public hearing were from the community, others from areas such as West Vancouver, Squamish and otherwise, according to Fulber.

He's primarily worried that the development won't bring more people to town, just "semi-transients" who will come and go as workshops and events are held at the centre. Fulber also worries that the institute is planning more development for the remaining 33 acres of its property.

"They're good people, but they're unknown to us," he said. "People assimilate and they become part of the community as opposed to having this large influx. They're not as rooted in the community."

Fadi Sarraf, president of the Institute and an Opus Dei member himself, said the terrain is too steep for housing and that it has no plans for the area aside from the retreat centre.

"The whole land we acquired is quite steep and it's rough terrain," he said in an interview. "So for now we have no other plans. Even our current plans, we're not sure if it can go ahead. We really haven't gone much further in thinking about the property."

Sarraf went on to say that residents initially opposed to the project 18 months ago are now speaking in favour but there's still "different views" about the best use of the land.

"Those who opposed the development spoke about the Official Community Plan," he said. "Currently the OCP foresees for our land mixed residential use, that means townhouses, homes, higher density, single-family land use. They were saying they would like to see more residences."

Religion, Sarraf said, didn't figure at all at the public hearing because you can only bring up technical details at such a gathering.

"There was some hints to it but no one could bring it up directly," he said.

John Turner, the SLRD board representative for Area D that includes Britannia Beach, Furry Creek and the Pinecrest and Black Tusk subdivisions, said Thursday that religion won't figure at all in the board's decision on the property.

"There was definitely a difference of opinion there but by the same token, they were very balanced in terms of their concerns," Turner said of the meeting. "There certainly isn't going to be a major concern about having Opus Dei involved with it."

The SLRD board will consider the bylaws at a future meeting.