Can’t see the forest for the bed units
The municipality’s view is that preserving the Emerald Forest fits in with the Vision 2002 document
"In Whistler, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Understanding this interdependence of the community and the resort business is essential. One complements the other."
– draft of the Vision 2002 document
By Bob Barnett
The Emerald Forest deal may seem to have come about suddenly and gone to public hearing rather quickly, but protection of the privately held, 139-acre area was identified as a municipal priority in 1985.
It was in 1985 that the municipality expropriated what is now Rainbow Park, at the north end of Alta Lake. And it was at that time, Bill Barratt says, that the municipality saw the value of protecting the wetlands corridor between Alta and Green lakes.
"The corridor is unique, significant, it’s unlike anything else in the valley," Barratt, the director of Parks and Recreation, says looking at a map of the Whistler Valley and trying to figure out why people haven’t recognized the significance of the proposed deal to acquire and preserve the Emerald Forest.
The proposal — and there seem to be some who still don’t understand it — is for Intrawest to buy the 139-acre Emerald Forest area from the Decigon group for an undisclosed price. Intrawest would then transfer the Emerald Forest to the municipality, which would set up a trust fund to preserve it in its present state in perpetuity.
In return, the municipality would pay Intrawest $1 million and provide 476 new bed units — bed units above and beyond the development cap — which would be allocated to a 192-room hotel on Lot 5, the northern end of the Blackcomb day skier parking lot, on the Benchlands.
That may or may not be the end result, but how the municipality got to the present stage started 14 years ago.
After acquiring Rainbow Park, the municipality applied to the Crown for an adjacent block of land, which is now known as the Rainbow Park Wetlands. That land would revert back to the Crown if there was ever any development on it. Over time, the Golden Dreams Conservation Area and Wedge Park were also protected.
In 1988 the municipality increased the bed unit cap from 45,000 to 52,500, allocating the additional 7,500 bed units for projects which would deliver summer amenities. Nineteen proposals for those 7,500 bed units were received by the summer of 1989, for virtually every piece of privately held land in the valley, including the Emerald Forest.
As the viability and desirability of pyramid hotels on the shores of Alta Lake and trailer parks on wetlands were evaluated, Barratt recalls, municipal staff realized the recreation master plan had to be redone in order to identify areas that would be beneficial to the resort community as a whole. As a Parks Department newsletter from the winter of 1990 states: "The success and development of Whistler as a community and as an international destination resort is contingent on the inter-relationship between development and recreational facilities. The attractiveness of the Whistler experience can be protected through the establishment and review of a Recreation Master Plan. The plan or vision will ensure that the natural splendors and the recreational opportunities of Whistler, and beyond, are preserved and enhanced."
The master plan identified Nesters Hill, Blueberry Hill and the Emerald Forest as areas to be acquired and protected. The crown of Nesters Hill and the west side of Blueberry Hill were protected but the Emerald Forest was more difficult because it was, and still is, privately held.
Over the years various means of acquiring the Emerald Forest have been explored, including partnering with Nature’s Trust, a conservation organization which helps acquire and preserve wildlife habitat. Ultimately Nature’s Trust was more interested in projects of a provincial or national scope and so didn’t get involved with the municipality.
During the same period the Decigon group — which has now owned the Emerald Forest property for 20 years — sought development rights for their land. After their 1989 proposal was rejected Decigon submitted another application in 1994. The municipality, which was trying to cope with the frenzy of development in Village North, didn’t have the staff to deal with Decigon but still wanted to preserve as much of the Emerald Forest as possible, so a consultant was hired. The consultant came up with a plan to rezone 20 acres of the property, allowing 40 half-acre lots, and dedicating the remaining 120 acres to the municipality.
The alternative, which Glenn and Larry Houghton of Decigon could have proceeded with at any time, was to subdivide the entire 139 acres into six 20-acre estate lots.
But by the time the rezoning proposal had been worked out it was the fall of 1996 — an election year. The Emerald Forest issue remained unresolved and a new council was left to deal with it. And the new council — in particular Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden — didn’t like the limited choice of rezoning or subdividing.
Decigon held an open house in Whistler in May of 1997 to present the rezoning and subdivision options to the public and try and spark some action from council. The public feedback was overwhelmingly in support of rezoning the 20 acres and preserving the remaining 120 acres. Later that summer Decigon established information kiosks on the section of the Valley Trail which cuts through the Emerald Forest, to solicit opinions on the rezoning-subdivision alternatives. Again, rezoning was supported by the majority of people surveyed.
Also in the spring of 1997, council decided to change the minimum size of subdivision parcels, from 20 acres to 100 acres. In effect, this "down-zoned" most privately held large parcels of land. A 200 acre piece of private property could no longer be subdivided into 10 20-acre lots but into two 100-acre lots.
The exceptions were the Emerald Forest, the BC Rail lands and the Prospero property south of Alpine Meadows, all of which submitted subdivision applications prior to the change and so were "grandfathered."
For the last two and a half years administrator Jim Godfrey, Barratt and other municipal staff members have been trying to come up with a third alternative to rezoning or subdivision of the Emerald Forest. The motivation has always been that because the land sits in the middle of the valley bottom and is the last piece of a continuous green belt that includes 21 Mile Creek, it is important to save the Emerald Forest in its entirety.
Buying, or expropriating, the Emerald Forest was never seriously considered because the value of land in Whistler is now so high and the municipality doesn’t have the cash on hand to make such an acquisition.
"There are a number of important projects the municipality can’t fund right now," Godfrey notes. "We could borrow the money to buy the land, but that would mean a trade-off, something else would have to drop off the list."
There’s also the matter of what effect such a loan would have on taxes.
So the municipality sought a third party to try and make a deal.
"We looked at density transfers with several property owners," Barratt says. "We talked to BC Rail, to Bob Lee of Prospero, to the Crown about a piece of land south of Emerald Estates and to Intrawest. We did pro formas on each."
In the end the municipality approached Lee’s Prospero Holdings about providing a single family lot subdivision and Intrawest about the current proposal for a hotel on Lot 5. The hotel, on a previously "disturbed" piece of property, was most in keeping with Whistler’s goal of concentrating development in specific areas, rather than furthering sprawl.
"The whole west side of the valley is maintained in a ‘green’ state," Godfrey says of the proposed deal. "It follows the principles and values set out in the environmental strategy, the Parks master plan and the Vision 2002 document."
Protecting the natural environment has always been very high on any list of community values put together at town hall meetings or workshops. The draft of the Vision 2002 document states that there should be no net loss of habitat. "Wetlands are earmarked for conservation, part of a network of connected, protected areas, including alluvial forests, wildlife corridors and lakes and streams."
Barratt is surprised more people haven’t recognized the values the municipality is trying to protect in making this deal and the environmental significance of the Emerald Forest.
"You look back at the public hearing on Nicklaus North when 650 people showed up out of concern for the River of Golden Dreams wetlands. This deal protects the rest of that wetland."
But to date people have seemed more concerned with what the municipality is giving up to get this deal, what Intrawest is getting out of it, and what alternatives might be left.
Godfrey says "Intrawest didn’t jump at the opportunity" to be part of the Emerald Forest deal.
"There were numerous times the deal between Intrawest and Decigon was about to fall apart," says Doug Ogilvy, vice president of Intrawest’s Resort Development Group.
No one is saying exactly what the terms of the deal between Intrawest and Decigon are, but the Emerald Forest property has been appraised at $9.8 million. Intrawest’s provisional deal with Decigon is to acquire the land for less than the appraised value, but if the whole thing falls apart the Houghtons will put the Emerald Forest back on the market, where their asking price is $10.9 million.
The other part of the deal which has dismayed many people is the fact that 476 new bed units — beyond the bed unit cap — are being created to save the Emerald Forest. Godfrey says the official community plan has four tests a project must pass before new bed units can be created: a) it provides clear and substantial benefits to the community and the resort; b) is supported by the community, in the opinion of council; c) will not cause unacceptable impacts on the community, resort or environment; d) meets all applicable criteria set out in the official community plan.
"Proposals for exceeding the bed unit cap happen on a regular basis, and they’re regularly turned down," Godfrey says.
"We felt the private university proposal didn’t provide enough benefit to the community to raise the cap."
"People have said it’s the thin edge of the wedge," Barratt adds. "But council’s already downzoned all RR1 properties, except for Bob Lee’s property, Decigon’s and BC Rail’s, and Bob Lee has now withdrawn his application.
"We no longer have to deal with 20-acre subdivisions, something for which there is now a market. That was a gutsy move by council."
Godfrey concedes Intrawest’s hotel on Lot 5 may provide additional competition for Benchlands condo owners trying to rent their properties, but says that will be a short-term impact.
"In the long term, this (Emerald Forest) enhances Whistler overall, and should make those (Benchlands) properties more valuable."
Godfrey says the two-plus years of negotiations it took to reach this deal were probably the most difficult he has ever been involved in during his career as a municipal administrator.
"Negotiations have gone up and down. We’ve persevered because we thought it was in the interests of the community," Godfrey says.
But the public impression is there may still be a better deal available, a better way to preserve the Emerald Forest. Glenn Houghton isn’t so sure.
"It’s taken more than five years to get this far. If we don’t complete this deal the Emerald Forest’s future is uncertain. I don’t know that we’d be ready to sit back and wait to see if the community could buy the land," Houghton says.
"It’s a beautiful piece of property, and it’s tough for us to give it up," he continues. "But we’ve seen how important it is to the community.
"We’ve gone through such a long process I’ve got to believe this is the right answer for the community."