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The Resort of British Columbia

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By Caroline Lamont

As an overly pragmatic thinker, the planning profession is well suited for my intellectual thought process. Town planners are able to draw on tangible examples of previous planning decisions by incorporating past or ongoing practices from like-communities. Studying and later working in Toronto, I could walk out my door and see more than a hundred years of land use planning decisions before my eyes, from the impacts of elevated freeways to the success of vibrant commercial areas. The city was a living workshop, where experiences and options were typically just a subway, streetcar or a brisk walk away.

Early in my career, I shook up this safe professional textbook and moved to Whistler. Whistler in 1989 was not only across the country from Toronto, but the planning challenges were almost the polar opposite (other than equally exorbitant rental prices). A regional ski area that aspired to be “world class” had a resident population of only 5,000 and little planning history. Although many of the urban design skills I learned in urban Canada were somewhat applicable, Whistler’s destination tourism focus was different. Despite the confidence I hoped I had communicated at the job interview, the prospect of reviewing a controversial signature golf course development adjacent to a thriving wetland, a five star hotel development as well as a heliport catering to heli-skiing, was terrifying. Not only that, but the projects usually were built in only a few years, where errors such as snow dump catastrophes or unattractive urban design became immediately apparent. Faced with this new challenge, I sought out real time comparatives and forced myself to become a progressive thinker and researcher. I needed to touch, converse or at least see on-the-ground examples before committing. It was the most exciting of times… for a planning wonk that is.

During these years, I quickly learned that although Whistler was special to Canada, it was not unique to North America. Whistler had a few older cousins, most prevalent in the Rocky Mountain states. But as I increasingly looked south of the border for ideas and inspiration, I distanced myself from the professional practices of my B.C. peers. After attending several planning conferences in the early 1990s I found that I had little in common with my lotus land counterparts, where the interests at that time included densifying urban cores, social housing and suburban growth. Hooked on the experiences of other resort communities I immersed myself in reading journals, attending conferences and eventually moving to Colorado for a great one-stop shop for all my mountain town questions.

Planners from Aspen, Jackson Hole, Vail, Park City and other mountain towns provided a how-to-guide to address rapidly expanding issues facing resort communities, including affordable housing, growth management, resort amenities, tourist accommodation conflicts and retaining community. I believed so much in what could be learned from these resort towns that in 2006, together with another mountain resort town planner (Jackson, Wyoming’s Planning Director Brian Grubb), we co-developed an annual conference, the Mountain Town and Resort Planners Summit.

The initial Summit was held in Whistler in April 2006 and was attended by planners from communities throughout B.C. as well as, Alberta, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and California. In 2007, the Summit was enthusiastically welcomed by Breckenridge, well situated in the heart of Colorado mountain planning.

The conference’s format is intimate, with less than 100 participants, daily plenary presentations and facilitated breakout sessions. The Summit is unique as participants are effectively the presenters as they collectively brainstorm many of the key challenges facing our communities and work towards developing a framework for effective practices. The topics are selected by the participants through a survey administered a month prior to the event.

In 2007 the major areas of interest that the attendees selected and the key directions included the following: S ustainability in Mountain Towns and Tourist Destinations; Preservation of Unique Built Environments; Economic Change; Innovative Design for Affordable Housing; Preserving the Natural Setting; and Resort Development and Redevelopment . As well as the key discussion topics there was also interest in considering more specific challenges such as short-term accommodation, ground floor office use in retail areas, fractional ownership of accommodation and ease of accessibility to the community. (Summary and verbatim results for the ’06 and ’07 Summit’s are available on the website www.mountaintownplanners.com.)

Following the Summit I returned to B.C. feeling inspired. I was at that time focusing on an update of an Official Community Plan in a southern Okanagan community. Although this community is increasingly populated by retiring yet active individuals from B.C. and Alberta and is developing a summer and agri-tourism industry, it is and will not be a resort community like Vail, Aspen or Banff. But as I worked through their issues I found myself increasingly drawing on the experiences from resort community planning, including affordable housing restrictions, amenity zoning, golf resort development, design controls and nightly rental restrictions. I was perplexed and concerned as many of these major issues are those faced by resort communities.

I again went into research mode looking at similar communities in B.C. and found that these planning trends are occurring province-wide in communities as diverse as Smithers and Ucluelet. I also made a point of registering for the Planning Institute of B.C. Conference “A Good Thing Growing” (April 2007) as much of the new resort development is being focused in the Okanagan region. It was during a plenary session by Trevor Boddy that things started to gel. His presentation closely followed an article he authored in the August 2006 edition of Canadian Architect. Downtown's Last Resort , his critical assessment of Vancouver’s 1991 Downtown Plan. Boddy indicated that despite honest intentions of community leaders the high density neighbourhoods that have sprouted up all over Downtown Vancouver are not as socially and economically diverse as existing City neighbourhoods, rather “new residents are a golden global class temporarily parking their investment dollars, linked with a huge cohort of Canadian baby boomers planning to spend their final years in Vancouver”.

The article further expounds that: “Its developers were eyeing the international and not the local market for the new global commodities: condos in resort towns. I predict it will not be long until condos in what I call the ‘Portal Cities’ — Vancouver, Dubai, Hong Kong, Panama City and Miami — are traded on stock exchanges like commodities.”

Back at the Kelowna conference, following a session tour of the South Okanagan, Mr. Boddy proclaimed that “we are making B.C. a high end resort and we will have a very difficult future . He continued that B.C.’s history has been dependant on the commodity markets and in the 2000s we are no longer exploiting gold, lumber or fish but rather the focus has now turned to waterfront, mountainside, and golf course real estate.

These observations were further confirmed by the focus of the individual sessions. Interestingly, most of the topics discussed at the 2007 Mountain Town and Resort Planners Summit were front and centre at the Kelowna conference. In particular, I attended presentations on innovative affordable housing initiatives in Langford, resort development in the emerging resorts in the North Okanagan, sustainability practices in community planning and the impacts of residential vs. accommodation real estate on municipal revenues. It was incredible to learn the innovative approaches B.C.’s planners and municipalities are implementing to address the rapid changes to the social, economic and ecological wellbeing of their communities.

The direction to embrace tourism and resort development in British Columbia is consistent with a September 2004 statement made by Premier Gordon Campbell: “Tourism remains one of our strongest strategic building blocks, and a huge strategic advantage for every region of the province. B.C. has the world’s most spectacular places, diverse cultures, amenities and landscapes and amazing resorts. We want to work with the tourism industry to ensure we provide funding in the most effective way possible to double tourism revenues, and to make sure communities across B.C. can achieve their full tourism potential.”

The provincial government not only set this ambitious goal but also has prepared a series of planning resource materials and reports that strive to achieve the desired results. These reports are available on the Ministry of Tourism, Sport and the Arts website ( www.tsa.gov.bc.ca ) and focus on resort development in the context of planning, servicing and local governance, best practices, streamlined approvals (harmonization) and First Nations interests. These documents were then incorporated in the recently released Provincial Government Tourism Action Plan to 2015 (February 2007).

There is also an organization of resort towns in B.C. that have initiated the “Resort Community Collaborative” providing a forum, resources and shared relationships for many of our province’s established and emerging tourism destinations such as Whistler, Tofino, Fernie and Revelstoke. Most of these communities have been dealing with the impacts of resort development for several decades and each have addressed their challenges with innovative and homegrown approaches.

So clearly B.C. towns and the provincial government will be increasingly recognizing that our unique communities, recreational experiences and incredible natural environment are providing a global demand for real estate and destination amenities. Yet the people of B.C. will need to retain control over the future of their cherished communities while embracing the opportunities for new economic growth. This will require a strong and well-supported community vision, leadership and implementation plans that bring together planning professionals as well as stakeholders, community interests and senior government to share their challenges and work towards solutions. This integrated approach will be crucial for B.C.’s sustained success, as clearly B.C. is magnificent and if we fail there will be no new frontiers.

– Caroline Lamont is a planner with Brent Harley and Associates, The Resort Planning Group