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Plans for asphalt plant to be re-evaluated

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One hundred angry new homeowners have forced council back to the drawing board to see about relocating an asphalt plant away from the Olympic athletes' village.

The homeowners, who will be moving into Cheakamus Crossing months after the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games are over, came out in droves Tuesday night to a council meeting, armed with concerns and questions about air quality and toxicity from the plant.

Council was unable to answer many of the questions.

As tensions and emotions grew in the room, council accepted that it needed to try to find another solution for the hundreds of Whistler residents, many of whom have been living here for more than a decade, waiting for their chance to buy into a piece of the Whistler dream.

For many, Cheakamus Crossing is that dream.

"I felt like we really did make a difference, all of us being there," Tobi Henderson said following the council meeting.

"I guess (now) we just need to show that there's even more support from the community as a whole... who would like to have it relocated."

The Cheakamus Crossing owners were made aware of the asphalt and gravel operations in their disclosure statements signed upon buying their homes.

What they didn't realize was how that proximity could affect life at the new neighbourhood.

Henderson was instrumental in harnessing the public outcry this month after sending an e-mail to the homeowners several weeks ago about what life could possibly be like.

She regularly visits the neighbourhood to check on the progress of her new duplex, desperate to move into it with her husband and two young boys after being on the Whistler Housing Authority waitlist for five years. They are currently crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, counting the days until they move to Cheakamus Crossing.

"Over the past several months I've been out to visit our new home almost every week and I just noticed that the smell of fresh asphalt was often there," said Henderson, interviewed earlier this week.

Then two weeks ago, "The smell was so bad... I couldn't stand there. It made me nauseous."

And that's what she shared with the other new homeowners.

That was enough for Sébastien Frémont and his wife Natasha to take a trip to the site and, much to their surprise, the area smelled heavily of asphalt and there was a layer of smog over the village. They were surprised because they've used the recreation area frequently and never experienced that before.

"Our understanding was that we were going to be living in a beautiful little community with a lot of young families," said Frémont earlier this week.

"They got rid of the smells (of the garbage dump and the sewage treatment plant). We had all these understandings. But never did they talk about... 'you're going to be living with the smell of asphalt six months out of the year.'"

Whistler Aggregates has operated on the site for more than 20 years. Owner Frank Silveri has two separate companies there: Whistler Aggregates is the rock quarrying company, and Alpine Paving is the asphalt company.

Silveri believes he has been a good neighbour, operating within provincial regulations for years without complaint, beside a garbage dump and a sewage treatment plant. His annual air quality reports prove that he meets those standards, he said.

All that changed four years ago when Whistler decided to move the athletes' village cum resident housing neighbourhood to the area.

"As soon as somebody mentions an asphalt plant or any industry, people just automatically react," said Silveri Tuesday afternoon.

That's one of the reasons he is in a rezoning process at municipal hall, asking to move his operations to the south, further away from the neighbours.

Essentially, he wants to give the municipality some of his land to the north to create a bigger buffer in return for land to the south.

"I'm willing to give up part of my claim to make things better for everyone," said Silveri.

"They won't even know we're there."

This year, in particular, has been a banner year for the company with all the paving work done in the municipality in preparation for the Olympics. Silveri expects to be much quieter in the years to come.

What the rezoning process revealed, however, is that the land is not specifically zoned for asphalt operations - a two-decade old oversight.

Mayor Ken Melamed explained that because the municipality moved the asphalt plant there all those years ago, the operations are essentially entrenched in the law.

"He has the de facto permission to be there," explained the mayor.

There have been ongoing discussions between the Whistler Development Corp. board, the arm's length municipal subsidiary charged with building the $161 neighbourhood development, and Silveri to relocate, even as recently as this past September. To date, it has simply cost too much.

When asked how much, council could not say.

"He (the owner) has told us there's a significant cost," said the mayor.

"It's significant enough that we can't just make it happen."

Those costs would likely be borne by taxpayers.

There was an urgency to the questions asked of council Tuesday night because the homeowners must put down their second deposit (three per cent of the total cost, on top of the two per cent already on deposit) by Nov. 27, the day following a public open house where some of the questions could be answered.

Frémont pointed out that it gives them 12 hours to make a decision on whether they want to live there or not.

At that beginning of the discussion Tuesday the mayor's response was: "What we can't do is make your decision for you."

He said council was concerned about it and committed to clean air in the neighbourhood. But in the end, he said, it was the homeowners' decision.

"It's going to come down to your investment and getting comfortable with the decision to be there," he said.

The mayor's position changed about two hours later in the wake of more unanswered questions, and more outrage about the plan.

When asked if there was any one comment that stood out, the mayor highlighted Susan Stacey's comments. She has lived in the area next to the asphalt plant for years.

What she told council was: "The emissions are pretty nasty."

"You have to hold your breath for long periods of time because you can't breathe," she added, describing what it's like walking her dog in the area sometimes.

In the end council agreed to get staff to work on the unanswered questions, including the cost of moving the plant, potential relocation sites and to investigate the legal ramifications of the zoning. Council also agreed to ask the WDC to extend the second deposit date.

"This is a change in course," admitted Melamed to the crowded auditorium at MY Millennium Place after hours of taking angry and frustrated questions from homeowners.

"It's given us renewed impetus and impact in our conversations with Whistler Aggregates."

Councillor Eckhard Zeidler urged the residents to work with council in a non-adversarial way to find solutions.

"It should have been dealt with a long time ago," he admitted.

"The price has gone up tonight because we zoned out on this a while back."

 

 

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