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Public hearing for Phase 2 bylaw draws a crowd

Majority in attendance oppose front desk booking requirement

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Phase 2 property owners — the majority from the Alpenglow strata in Whistler Village — were out in full force to speak against a proposed Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) bylaw at a public hearing on Tues. June 6.

The bylaw seeks to add language that reinforces RMOW covenants on Phase 2 properties, requiring them to operate under a professional rental pool manager using a single integrated booking and front desk system.

Of 13 people who spoke at the public hearing, only two voiced support for the bylaw.

"The Alpenglow doesn't fit into this at all," said Jan Paulsen, an owner in the strata since 1996.

"I've seen this situation of the big guys beating up the little guys, and the manipulation that goes on, and I'm not saying council is being manipulative, but I asked today by email to find out who actually instigated this... I want to know who started this process, if it's been going on for 10 months..."

Under an RMOW Phase 2 rental-pool covenant, owners are restricted to a total of 56 days of use (28 days in summer and 28 days in winter). The covenant states that for the remaining days, the unit must be placed into a bona fide rental-pool company for rental to visitors.

But another Alpenglow owner said the notion that the bylaw was simply reinforcing the covenant is misleading.

"The closest covenant that we were able to identify, and again, that's with (director of planning Mike) Kirkegaard as well, is that all units must be booked through an integrated booking system," said Brandon Smith.

"There is nothing relating to an actual single property management, so I think that maybe just needs to be looked into and just kind of clarified a little bit, because again, that does come across as a little bit misleading."

Forcing owners to hire out management responsibilities will cost them an additional 30 to 50 per cent of their bottom line, Smith said.

"You have spent 10 months compiling a report that is seeped in flawed logic and misleading language, basically in an attempt to fix a problem that doesn't exist," he added.

"The only people in town who are going to benefit from this change are the rental management companies and big business hotel chains who will be able to gain a monopoly on all the Phase 2 properties."

The concern for Alpenglow owners in particular is that their properties will be massively devalued if forced to use a property management company. Units in the building currently sell for twice those in other buildings.

Rachel Greenfeld said she co-owns eight units in the Alpenglow, as well as units in Lake Placid Lodge and a home in Whistler.

"My lifetime dream was to be able to run a business in Whistler and it took me 45 very, very long years to get here," Greenfeld said, adding that she once ran against federal Liberal MP Hedy Fry in the Vancouver Centre riding.

"The reason that I fought so long and so hard was because I thought that I could do something to improve the conditions of my community, and I think that that's what public office is really all about — at the end of the day what we try to do is we try to improve the experience that the locals and the tourists have in our communities," she said.

"This current proposal counteracts what we run for office to do. I personally will have to leave Whistler with my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter because my business will go from being very profitable after two years in business to a zero business."

For Andy Flynn, the proposed bylaw was especially stunning.

"We bought (in the Alpenglow) 10 days ago. Didn't know this was coming down the road," Flynn said, to audible groans from the audience.

"I don't think our realtor knew about it, I don't think the realtor who sold the property to them knew about it, so it was a really cool secret. Something we don't want to be a part of."

After a steady stream of Alpenglow owners took to the podium, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden asked for a show of hands to see just how many were in the audience.

A quick headcount showed 38 Alpenglow owners, none of which were there to voice support for the change.

But not everyone was opposed to the bylaw.

Lee Higginbotham has owned several properties in Whistler since the mid '90s, including the Alpenglow, and currently owns at the Adara Hotel, where 41 owners formed their own rental management company and are now enjoying a 10 to 12 per cent return on investment each year after expenses.

But one owner has so far refused to come on board with the management company, causing problems and frustrations for guests.

"The owner advertises online that their unit is in the Adara hotel. Their guests constantly approach our front desk with in-suite issues that we have no ability to assist with and they take their frustrations out on our employees. When guests in this unit are unhappy they post comments on Trip Advisor on the Adara page, even though they were not Adara guests, and this certainly must turn some potential guests away form the Adara rental pool," Higginbotham said, noting that he speaks on behalf of the 41 owners at the Adara.

"The proposed bylaw changes will significantly improve the guest experience, we believe, and encourage return guest visits."

But problems with property management companies are not exclusive to one property — attendees from other stratas spoke of property management companies that have charged exorbitant and unfounded fees, or taken rights away from owners without notice.

"My fear with how this proposal goes forward is that we need to have something that protects the owners, because it's the owners who are the investors," said Rita Bellano, strata president of the Blackcomb Lodge.

"The rental companies have no real investment in the building... In effect, this is giving too much power to the rental management companies, which we need to have a counter balance to."

The proposed bylaw also drew 20 letters of opposition, two in support and one neutral.

A second opportunity for public comment — relating to the plan to implement business licences for nightly rentals — took place immediately after the public hearing.

Reaction was more mixed — with three speaking in favour, one in opposition and one neutral.

Mayor and council are unable to comment after a public hearing.

With people speaking against them, the bylaws will come to council for readings at a future meeting.

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