While it may be dangerous to read too much into one public hearing on a warm summer night in August, it was interesting to gauge the mood of the more than 50 people jammed into council chambers this past Monday evening.
Officially the subject of the public hearing was the bylaws which would rezone Lots 5 and E on the Blackcomb Benchlands. In reality it was a preliminary referendum on the proposed deal to preserve the Emerald Forest. Fortunately it was only preliminary.
Early on it was evident that many people felt the deal was being rushed. Mayor Hugh O’Reilly deserves credit for adjourning the public hearing — rather than closing it — so that members of the public have another chance to speak to the issue on Sept. 7.
In addition to a range of emotions regarding the deal, the nearly two hours of public comment on Monday also provide a snapshot of the mood of Whistler in the late summer of 1999. For instance, there was some indication people are beginning to resent or to tire of Intrawest’s dominant position in this town. Nothing was stated directly, but there was some insinuation it was more than a coincidence that the proposal to lift the bed unit cap would benefit Intrawest.
Just as interesting was the conviction some people showed for the 52,500 figure as a bed unit cap. Bed units are only an estimate of Whistler’s development (a single family lot counts as six bed units whether there’s a 7,000 square foot house on it or a 1,200 square foot house), but to date they are the most reliable measure of development. Many people seemed to feel another 476 bed units would add to the growing congestion and uninhabitability of Whistler, but there was little mention of what losing 139 acres smack in the middle of a protected green belt stretching from Alta Lake to Green Lake would do to the valley environment.
Ironically, several people spoke of the proposed deal spoiling the Benchlands environment, but made no mention of the preservation of the Emerald Forest — the primary objective of this deal. At least one speaker didn’t even realize the Lot 5 proposal was part of a deal to preserve the forest.
Of course there was the some NIMBYism and "what’s in it for me" sentiment expressed Monday, but beyond that there was — still — a genuine frustration with development. People have been told repeatedly that the 52,500 bed unit cap was going to be maintained; they were told development on the Benchlands was all planned. And then they were surprised by the Lot 5 proposal.
Add to that the complexity of the proposed deal, the speed with which it was moving forward and the lack of public knowledge about alternatives or how council arrived at this take-it-or-leave-it position and it’s little wonder people were frustrated. Although it’s taken council nearly three years to put this deal together, many seemed to feel a better deal could be made — there was even some support for raising taxes if it would allow the municipality to purchase the Emerald Forest outright and not have to give up 476 bed units.
Whether the feelings expressed Monday were representative of most of Whistler or just a few may be easier to determine after the Sept. 7 public hearings, where the Lots 5 and E proposals will be discussed again, as well as Intrawest’s comprehensive plan for Creekside, The Peaks and Spring Creek. But there is definitely a feeling of frustration amongst voters.