Whistler has delivered a budgetary blow to the regional district as tensions between the two local governments reach the breaking point over a development on the edge of Whistler’s boundaries.
In an unprecedented move Tuesday night council immediately withdrew its annual funding for planning at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. That decision means Whistler has effectively removed its vote for future land use matters in the region, even those right on the municipality’s boundaries.
SLRD board chair John Turner was surprised to hear about Whistler’s decision on Wednesday.
Without having talked to Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed, Turner said he hoped there was room for negotiation and perhaps changing council’s mind.
“I’m obviously more than willing to discuss this situation and
see if we can reach some kind of a resolution that we can all live with,” said
“I would have preferred that the funding wasn’t withdrawn.”
The time, however, for talking is passed if council’s debate at Tuesday’s meeting was any indication. Though they recognize the regional district, which includes Squamish, Pemberton, Lillooet and all the rural areas in between, is a major corridor partner to the resort municipality, councillors criticized that partnership.
“It takes two to have a relationship,” said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler. “We’ve extended an olive branch and it’s been slapped out of our hands.”
He added that Whistler taxpayers’ money was being spent in the regional district and yet their concerns were falling on deaf ears at the board table.
The move to withdraw the funding was designed as a clear and strong message to the SLRD nine-member board said Mayor Ken Melamed.
“They should think very carefully about the partnership and the relationship they have with Whistler,” he said.
The issue revolves around the Green River Estates rezoning near Wedge Mountain on the east side of Highway 99.
Developers have approval to build 64 homes on the site. This approval came last year despite Whistler’s vociferous objections at the board table to what it sees as “rogue” development just beyond its borders.
Essentially the municipality sees the development relying on Whistler’s infrastructure and services without paying taxes to Whistler. To complicate matters even further the land lies in an area that Whistler has long hoped to gain in a boundary expansion from the province.
Whistler, however, had resigned itself to the inevitable.
“We opposed the original rezoning,” said the mayor. “It went through and we recognize it has legal status.”
But last month the SLRD board received a report from staff for a rezoning of the land to allow 108 homes in the development — a 40 per cent increase on what had already been approved.
Despite their own staff’s recommendations not to proceed, and an impassioned plea from Mayor Ken Melamed, the SLRD board of directors moved ahead in a six to two vote, with one director absent.
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It’s a slap in the face of this community,” said Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.
She had considered requesting that council vote to have Whistler withdraw from the board altogether. Upon further reflection, and because she didn’t think she could get support for that move, Wilhelm-Morden asked that council remove its funding.
They are aware, she said, that the move will take Whistler out of land use planning decisions at the regional level.
“It doesn’t make any difference anyway because they don’t listen to us,” she said, adding that Whistler will continue to have its say in the Regional Growth Strategy, which also determines future land use.
“We don’t seem to be able to get our message through without
taking some drastic action and this is what this is.”
Area MLA Joan McIntyre also expressed shock and concern about
Whistler’s decision. She has been actively promoting corridor partnerships
since she was elected last year.
“I’ve been encouraging the communities to work together,” she
said from the road Wednesday.
“It appears as though this is a step in the other direction.”
Without hearing from the stakeholders at this point, however, she was reticent to say more until she had a better understanding of Whistler’s decision.
The decision will most definitely have an impact on the functions and services of the planning department at the SLRD.
“It’s a big step,” agreed Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland, the only SLRD director to support Whistler last month, “and I’m sure it will get the attention of the SLRD.”
Squamish has also considered removing its funding from the SLRD in the past but they wanted to remain at the table for decisions that could impact them in communities such as Furry Creek, Britannia Beach and Porteau Cove.
“When we’ve talked about it in the past we’ve always felt that it’s better to be at the table and paying the money to be part of it,” said Sutherland.
“It’s still important, in our point of view, to be at the table and be part of the debate and understand that we’re going to win some, we’re going to lose some. But get a chance to put our point of view out there.”
Still, he understands Whistler’s frustrations over this fringe development, particularly as the board supported the rezoning in light of Melamed’s serious concerns.
“In many things we do we try to respect and understand the wishes of most affected parties and Mayor Melamed was very articulate and very passionate about his concerns for that project,” he added.
The idea is also floating among corridor politicians that Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton should try to expand their boundaries in order to remove all influence of the regional district from the corridor.
“There might be some sense made of adjoining boundaries,” said Sutherland.
Melamed spent Wednesday calling stakeholders to inform them of council’s decision.
Both he and Councillor Bob Lorriman voted against the drastic step, calling instead for more information on the impact of the decision. They were defeated.
SLRD Administrator Paul Edgington explained some of the potential ramifications Wednesday.
He said all member municipalities and areas are part of the requisition fund for planning unless they elect not to be a part. The contribution is based on assessed property values, which is why Whistler’s contribution far outweighs the rest.
In 2006 the total requisition from SLRD members for that planning fund was almost $146,000. Whistler’s portion was $104,000. That’s part of an overall planning budget of close to half a million dollars, much of which comes from fees and permits. In other words, Whistler pays 20 per cent of the entire planning budget.
The planning budget changes each year based on project workload.
For 2007 the total requisition budget is $80,500 with Whistler paying more than $57,000.
Edgington said the municipality might still be obligated to pay into the 2007 fund based on the Local Government Act.
He also questioned whether Whistler could have taken a less aggressive route through the Dispute Resolution Provision in the Local Government Act.
In the meantime he cautioned that the Green River bylaws have not yet come before the board for approval and that last week’s board decision simply moved the project along through planning.
When asked how he thinks the board will react Turner said:
“My gut reaction is that they’re all going to be sorry that this happened but whether they’ll feel that they’re going to change their vote on a developer project based on withdrawing of a contribution from Whistler…” said Turner. “It turns it into a monetary type of decision rather than a land use decision so I don’t know how they’re going to react to this, I really don’t.”