Depner waits in planning department queue
By Loreth Beswetherick
Before Rainbow Lodge opened its doors to guests on the shores of Alta Lake in 1914 the valley was home to explorers, trappers and eccentric prospectors.
The arrival of Alex and Myrtle Philip and the establishment of their fishing lodge, however, marked a turning point for the area — it began to earn a reputation as a resort destination. Whistler became known for its lodges and rustic cabins on the lakes.
It is this old-style accommodation that Ross Depner feels is missing in the resort's current accommodation mix and it is a something he plans to redress with a development proposal for a lodge and 25 rustic cabins on a 10-acre strip of land along the west shore of Nita Lake.
Depner has submitted a rezoning application for the parcel of land he and partner John Hewson acquired for $1.7 million. It is flanked by John Taylor's property to the south and Tyrol Lodge to the north and accessed off Alta Lake Road. They have the 64 bed units required for the development and they have the tentative support of council, the municipal administrator and the director of planning.
But, although the rezoning application was submitted in early 1998, they will have to wait in line. Word from the municipal planning department is there is scant chance the London Lodge proposal will come before council prior to the November election. This, and the fact municipal administrator Jim Godfrey is leaving his post in October, concerns Depner who may now have to work on convincing a new set of faces of the merits of his proposal.
Depner was burned by a flip flop council decision in 1997 that shattered his dream for a similar proposal — Bear Paw Lodge — on land just west of Les Deux Gros restaurant at Twin Lakes.
This time, before acquiring the Nita Lake land — or the old Hillman property as it is referred to — Depner met with the mayor and council. He said he got a favourable response. His plans have also been endorsed by the Creekside Merchants' Association. He was hoping his application would come before council prior to the November 1999 election.
"I think that just isn't going to happen now," said Depner. He added, however, he has had assurances from Godfrey and director of planning Mike Purcell that his rezoning should be approved before the end of 2000. He said he has been told to be patient, that the planning department supports his concept but due to short staffing and other more urgent applications, he must wait. At best, Depner is hoping for approval early next spring.
"I have some concerns now that Jim is moving on. I think he is a man of his word and there is integrity there. I don't know what is going to happen here as far as the person who replaces him and that cause me a little bit of concern," said Depner.
"I think I am the token independent developer here. Most of what is going on in the planning department right now is either community infrastructure or Intrawest development."
The London Lodge proposal for the rurally-zoned property includes a 12,000 square-foot lodge on three floors with 12 rooms. It would be run as a small hotel with a restaurant, room service, small conference facility, spa and central gathering room. The restaurant would seat around 80 and be designed along the lines of a European ski-lodge with long wooden tables.
The cabins would have peek-a-boo views of Whistler Mountain though the forest and across Nita Lake. Another five cabins would be designated to house project employees.
Pedestrian access from the development to the Whistler Mountain base area would be via a Valley Trail connection and a rail overpass at Creekside. Depner said the trail would connect with a parcel of land on Nita Lake that B.C. Rail has ceded to the municipality for a park.
Depner originally acquired bed units for the development in a land exchange with Whistler Mountain for his scuttled Bear Paw proposal. He gave Whistler Mountain a portion of his property off Alta Lake Road in return for 58 bed units. Intrawest has now earmarked that land for employee housing.
Depner said the turn-of the century-style cabins at Nita Lake would be strata-tilted and placed in a rental pool. Cabins would be named after colourful Whistler old-timers with old photographs displayed in each.
For his rezoning, Depner will donate the old 2,000 square-foot Gebhardt residence on the property for community use. It is one of the oldest and best preserved heritage structures in Whistler. The house comes with a detached barn. Depner sees the buildings as being used for an artist-in-residence program with a working studio and classes. The home, he said, could be an artists' retreat.
He said community benefits will also include the pedestrian overpass and Valley Trail extension from Jordan Creek to the B.C. Rail park and beyond.
Depner said his vision is to create the feel of the original Rainbow Lodge and recapture the sense of rustic adventure of the early years, but combined with the modern comforts of today.
He noted the development would create a "new category" of accommodation for the resort, complete with environmental, cultural and heritage values. London Lodge could be marketed as another Whistler venue for conferences, weddings, corporate retreats, training and seminars.
But, for now, he will have to bide his time in the planning department queue and hope a new council can share in his vision.