By Bob Barnett
Nearly six hours of public hearings, over two nights, has determined that: a) saving the Emerald Forest is now a priority for everyone and b) few people like the idea of exceeding the bed unit cap.
But the only way to reconcile those two positions appears to be outright purchase of the Emerald Forest lands.
There were numerous calls for the municipality to do just that at Tuesday night’s public hearing, which was actually a continuation of a public hearing which began Aug. 23. And there seemed to be plenty of support among the 150 or so people gathered for a tax increase to help finance the purchase.
But Whistler councillors are still left with the decision to approve the proposed three-way deal involving the municipality, Intrawest and the Decigon group, or go back to square one. And there were several speakers Tuesday who suggested going back to the Decigon group and opening new negotiations would put the entire 139-acre Emerald Forest at risk.
"I’d prefer we buy the Emerald Forest, but I think that option is gone," said Eddie Roberts. "I don’t like the idea of raising the cap, but I’m willing to do so (to preserve the Emerald Forest)."
Stephane Perron said he supported the proposed deal "because I don’t like the uncertainty of revisiting this deal. We risk losing the Emerald Forest, there’s too much at stake."
But Gwen Hahn, who owns a condo on the Benchlands, asked what steps had taken place to show that raising taxes to support the purchase of the land wasn’t an option. Municipal staff had no answer.
"You’ve heard over and over that people are willing to save the Emerald Forest by raising taxes," Hahn told council. "My question to council is: do you have the guts to take that initiative, rather than have the guts torn out of the community?"
Hahn, who said the 1,127 condo owners on the Benchlands were not supportive of the deal, was followed to the microphone by Michael D’Artois, who agreed Whistler is "development weary."
"This is one of many challenges to the cap. There have been some in the past and there will be more in the future," D’Artois said. "But I think this sets an extremely high standard and it’s one we can’t let go."
Sheila Smeaton, said Whistler was "right on the see-saw" of getting too big and suggested the whole community should share in the acquisition cost of the Emerald Forest. She asked what it would cost individual taxpayers.
Administrator Jim Godfrey said it was difficult to respond because the municipality doesn’t have a purchase agreement for the land with Decigon. However, he estimated it would mean a 5.6 or 5.5 per cent increase in taxes on each property for 15 years. For a house in Emerald Estates valued at $500,000 that would mean an additional $90 per year.
Smeaton replied that was cheap. "You can’t even get dinner in Whistler for that."
But Godfrey added his estimate assumes a selling price. As well, the municipality would have to borrow money to purchase the land, which would require a petition. Finally, the Decigon group would have to hang on to the property while the municipality sought public approval for the loan.
The Emerald Forest property is currently listed for sale with an asking price of $10.9 million. The assessed value is $9.8 million. Intrawest has reached an agreement with Decigon to purchase the land for an undisclosed price, said to be below the assessed value.
The rest of the proposed deal would see Intrawest turn over the Emerald Forest lands to the municipality, to be preserved in a trust, in exchange for $1 million and 476 new bed units, beyond the bed unit cap. Those 476 bed units and the 36 currently allocated to the Emerald Forest would be transferred to Lot 5 for a 192-room hotel.
Dave Williamson, an environmental consultant who has done work for all parties involved, supported the proposed deal.
"Staff and those involved have fought the good fight," Williamson said.
"Is it a good deal? Who knows. We’re buying real estate, really. Five years ago it would have been half the price, and 10 years from now it will be double the price."
But Whistler is already beyond the bed unit cap and has a problem separate from the Emerald Forest deal, Williamson said.
"I can think of five more properties worthy of consideration (for protection). Do the deal and figure out how we’re going to address the bed unit cap as it is," he urged.
Paul Burrows suggested the proposed deal was the type of issue that should go to a town hall meeting.
"This is probably the most significant issue this council has faced," Burrows said.
"This meeting is about ultimatums, not choices... This is not a good deal!"
Burrows suggested council was trading away future development rights because it has insufficient reserves to purchase the land.
"I urge everyone to seek a better deal."
Mitzi Montgomery offered to write a cheque for $1,000 on the spot to help finance the purchase of the Emerald Forest.
Garry Watson noted that for every hotel room created one additional employee housing bed, or cash equivalent, would be required of the developer.
"That’s another group of bed units that has to be produced," Watson said.
Phil Chew suggested the price Intrawest has agreed to pay Decigon for the land was unknown because it involves stock.
"It’s a tax dodge to avoid paying taxes, that’s what this deal’s all about."
There were also calls to have the proposed deal go to referendum during the Nov. 20 municipal election.
Council, as is its custom whenever there is opposition at a public hearing, deferred making a decision.