Proposed Emerald deal sparks outrage, praise
By Bob Barnett
It may be August but the proposed deal for the Emerald Forest has caught the public’s attention.
"I feel like you never listened. I feel like I wasted all my time," Paul Rawlinson told council at Monday’s public hearing. Rawlinson said he had spent time participating in town hall meetings over several years and that council’s proposal to go beyond the bed unit cap "made a mockery of the official community plan."
"I have three beliefs in life: death, taxes and the 52,500 bed unit cap," said a woman who urged councillors to buy the Emerald Forest outright.
"I don’t see any benefit at all to the Benchlands," said Felicity Fay. "I think this is an easy out for council. It’s out of proportion and it’s not benefiting me."
But the proposed three-party deal, which would preserve the privately held Emerald Forest in its present state and see Intrawest granted an additional 476 "new" bed units for a hotel on Lot 5 on the Benchlands, also had its supporters.
Ken Derpak noted that Whistler has already exceeded the development cap through employee housing projects. He also noted that a covenant on the proposed hotel would mean the building is taxed at business class 6, a higher level than most other Benchlands properties.
Rick Clare said it was a difficult issue but the Emerald Forest is worth saving.
"If you can pull it off, I commend you," he told council.
Rod MacLeod said the Emerald Forest was worth saving "pretty near no matter what the cost."
MacLeod added that preserving the forest in exchange for putting a hotel on a parking lot was "a no-brainer."
That prompted one Benchlands property owner to respond: "Put it in your backyard, then. Jerk."
Council chambers were jammed for the public hearing, with many people complaining about lack of notice of the deal and the apparent rush to complete it. Those complaints prompted Mayor Hugh O’Reilly to announce that the public hearing would be adjourned, rather than closed, and would re-open on Sept. 7.
Details of the proposed deal to save the 139-acre Emerald Forest were announced at council’s Aug. 9 meeting. The proposal would see Intrawest purchase the Emerald Forest from the Decigon group for an undisclosed price, then turn it over to the municipality to be maintained in its present state. In return, the municipality would pay Intrawest $1 million, transfer the 36 bed units attached to the Emerald Forest property to Lot 5 (the northern end of the day skier lot below the Chateau Whistler) and create an additional 476 bed units beyond the bed unit cap. Intrawest would use the 512 bed units for a hotel, comprised of two buildings, on Lot 5.
One of the unknowns associated with the proposed deal was the cost of sewer upgrades that may be required to handle sewer flows from the Benchlands with the proposed hotel on Lot 5 and another proposed for the adjacent Lot E.
Acting director of Public Works Brian Barnett said Monday the estimate to upgrade the sewer line is $130,000, a cost for which the municipality would be responsible. However, he pointed out that the hotel developments would generate sewer works and services charges for the municipality of approximately $700,000.
Paul Burrows responded that the money for the sewers would only be provided once, while the sewers would run forever.
"The argument that the cost is $130,000 and the works and services charges are $700,000 is a little specious," Burrows said.
"This (issue) shouldn’t be rushed; it should be put to a referendum in November," Burrows added.
O’Reilly said later that while council can reject the proposed deal, if it accepts the deal it must be finalized before the November municipal elections. That timeline comes from Decigon, which has been negotiating with the municipality, over several years and with several councils, for the right to develop the Emerald Forest or to sell the land to the municipality.
If council rejects the deal Decigon would file suit against the municipality. Administrator Jim Godfrey confirmed there is pending legal action, but said if the deal is rejected council will deal with the suit as a normal course of business.
If the deal is rejected Decigon would also subdivide the Emerald forest into six 20-acre lots, which could be developed for single family houses.
In addition to frustrations with the pace the proposed deal seemed to be moving forward, many people wondered about the price the municipality was paying. Casey Niewerth suggested bed units were worth about $20,000 each.
"That’s $10 million for Intrawest, plus the $1 million purchase price — for a few bikers (who use the Emerald Forest). Why go to all this expense, spending my money?"
Stephane Perron noted that the only currencies the municipality can trade in are dollars and bed units.
"I don’t like the bed unit increase," he said. "But I’d like to hear more commitment from the people against development. Maybe we can get together to buy the Emerald Forest."
Dawn Hahn asked how far $1 million would go toward saving the Emerald Forest.
O’Reilly said the municipality was not in a position to purchase the Emerald Forest and that "there’s not a lot in this for Intrawest.
"I think it’s fair to say we’ve looked at a number of options in the three years since the last election," O’Reilly said. "I think it’s fair to say this is the best option we found, that’s why we’re bringing it forward."
Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she had argued during in-camera meetings that the municipality should purchase the Emerald Forest, "but that didn’t fly with the rest of council.
"I’d be interested to hear if people would consider a tax increase to fund buying the Emerald Forest."
Other Benchlands property owners complained the proposed hotel developments would spoil their views, would eliminate the tennis courts and the buffer between Spearhead Drive and the hotels, would create greater congestion both on Blackcomb Mountain and on the Benchlands, would take away business from their rental properties, and the loss of parking would affect businesses and lead to "parking rage."
"I like to see council working so hard to save the Emerald Forest," said Eddie Roberts. "But exceeding the bed unit cap; this is the thin edge of the wedge.
"Whistler’s infrastructure is just about maxed right now... we’re right on that breaking point, it seems to me."
The public hearing will resume on Sept. 7, the same evening another public hearing will be held regarding Intrawest’s plans for Creekside, The Peaks and Spring Creek.