Whistler's fight against a controversial new ski resort on its doorstep is set to ramp up after the province granted it an environmental assessment (EA) certificate on Jan. 29.
A frustrated Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden called the effort of continuing to fight the proposed Squamish resort a "colossal waste of time and resources," considering the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has made its opposition to the new development proposal clear for years. The fight will continue sucking up municipal resources, as the RMOW continues to take part in the provincial approvals process.
The Garibaldi at Squamish (GAS) resort proposal is now further along in its development than it has ever been.
There are now more questions than answers in light of the ongoing opposition to the project from stakeholders and corridor governments, including the District of Squamish and the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), as they grapple with a development that will have major implications from one end of the corridor to the other — a development not envisioned in any Official Community Plan, or in the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS).
"What do we do now?" asked Wilhelm-Morden. "What is our next step? What does it take for the coin to drop that we not only don't support it, we actively oppose it?"
The mayor called the province's decision on the four-season resort "disappointing."
As questions flourish on social media in the wake of the EA approval — Will a new resort drive down prices at Whistler Blackcomb? Will it cannibalize the province's No. 1 resort that generates $1.3 billion in provincial GDP annual? — the success or failure of the project now seemingly rests in the hands of local government.
And therein lies the frustration: local governments — the SLRD, the District of Squamish, the RMOW (though GAS is not in Whistler's boundaries) — are all on the record in unanimous opposition.
Environment Minister Mary Polak and Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thompson wrote in their nine-page "Reasons for Ministers' Decision": "MRB (Mountain Resorts Branch of the provincial government) has advised the Proponent that it will not accept a Master Plan for review that does not have local government support."
After talking to corridor partners this week, that's an issue local MLA Jordan Sturdy, who is also parliamentary secretary for the environment, is eager to understand more clearly as he grapples with his position on the project, namely his concerns about the impact on the highway and the effect it will have on Whistler's economic viability, among other things.
"The question is: don't you already see that there's no local government support?" he said.
"What else do they (local governments) need to do?
"If this is what they want to do, how should they technically do it so that we don't need to waste a lot of time?"
Sturdy will be meeting government officials next week when he returns to Victoria in order to gain more clarity on the process.
The EA decision is an important step forward for the developers as they work on the $3.5-billion development on Brohm Ridge, north of Squamish. The development is fashioned after Whistler, with a pedestrian car-free village, recreational accommodation, skiing, mountain biking, and a variety of restaurants and shops.
After decades in the making, changing owners, detailed studies, and more recently deals with First Nations, GAS is now further along than ever before.
"The next step for this project is to listen and work in cooperation with the community, local governments and other stakeholders to ensure that this project is done right," said Jim Chu, vice president of Aquilini Investment Group, one of the two principles of GAS, in a press release. "We expect this process to take at least two years.
"We hope the community will come to see the benefits, which include 4,000 resort operations jobs, an average of 2,000 construction jobs during the 20-year build-out, millions of dollars of tourism-related economic activity, plus $49 million in government tax revenue per year."
Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO Dave Brownlie, who last year called the project "a very challenging, flawed concept that really doesn't work and it's not additive to the corridor," would only issue a statement this week.
The four-sentence statement was brief and understated.
"While there remains a significant amount of uncertainty surrounding GAS, we are satisfied that the Province has imposed appropriate conditions at this early stage," said Brownlie.
The province issued 40 conditions with its EA certificate, touching on specific parts of the project.
GAS would, as presented to the EAO, would include 124 ski runs, three gondolas, 18 chairlifts and three interconnected village areas. There would be more than 5,700 housing and hotel units.
Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman called it "a town in and of itself." It sits on more than 2,700 hectares of crown land within the regional district and all indications are pointing to the need for Squamish to expand its boundaries to accommodate the development.
But there is no active application in front of the district at the moment.
"We actually have no idea what the final proposal will be because the scope of this has been discussed at so many different levels," said Heintzman. "I think it's been rather confusing for people to understand."
Whereas once the Sea to Sky corridor worked almost in silos, there is more cohesive planning now, more understanding of the value of the region as a whole.
"I think we've come a long way in terms of appreciating Sea to Sky as one being with different energies," said Heintzman.
"There use to be a bit of an 'us and them' attitude, but I think we've evolved a bit in terms of our thinking. We can all co-exist, find our niches and complement each other really well and be stronger for it from a regional point of view.
"I understand why Whistler's concerned about this. There is a viability aspect for them."
Squamish has its own concerns, too. Heintzman said her gut feeling is that the majority in Squamish do not think it's a good idea, though she understands the appeal of new construction jobs and billions invested in town. And yet, Squamish is a hotbed of development activity.
"It's not like Squamish has a shortage of opportunities coming its way right now," she said, highlighting the multi-million Oceanfront development, sold to developers this week and set to transform downtown Squamish.
The chair of the SLRD board, Jack Crompton, who is also Whistler's representative at the regional district, said he is hopeful the province will stay true to the comments in the EA, that "local governments will control land use within our borders."
THE ROAD AHEAD
• The project as proposed lies in the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD). The SLRD is made up of four municipalities — Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and Lillooet — and four Areas — south to Furry Creek, north to Gold Bridge. Each has one representative on the board.
• This project is not part of the Regional Growth Strategy approved by the SLRD board in 2010 as a 20-year vision for growth in the region.
• The project will require an amendment to the RGS, which needs unanimous agreement from the board. If one or more members of the SLRD choose not to accept the amendment, dispute resolution provisions of the Local Government Act would then apply.
• It must also go through a Master Plan process led by the Mountain Resorts Branch (MRB) of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. It cannot proceed to construction without approval from MRB. MRB will not approve it without local government support, whether from the SLRD or the District of Squamish.
• The ministers report states: "...if following a review by internal and/or external experts in the ski resort economics, the MRB is of the opinion that the Project does not have the financial and market viability that is being proposed, the Project would not be approved by the MRB or the Proponent would be asked to revise the proposal."
• The project is privately backed by the Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the Canucks, and Northland Properties, owners of Revelstoke Mountain Resort.
• The proponents have recently inked a deal with Squamish First Nation, giving the nation a 10 per cent stake in the project, revenue sharing and employment opportunities.