The Nimby Wave
Backyard Battles In Whistler
By Stephen Vogler
Like most human beings, Whistlerites have a strong impulse to protect what lies closest to home. Like their most distant ancestors, they're willing to fight for the land they live on, to protect it from change, invasion or destruction. But while our ancestors usually protected their homes with a pitch fork, spear or shot gun, the modern Whistlerite is more often armed with a brief set of notes and an eloquent speech at the battle ground of the public hearing.
In Whistler, those who stand up to protect their neighbourhood from change are not always seen as noble guardians. More often than not they're slapped with the moniker NIMBY — not in my back yard — and dismissed as selfish whiners by the proponents of change. With the recent push to develop employee and affordable housing in Whistler, nimbyism has reached new proportions in the community.
At its best, nimbyism can pull people together to protect their homes, neighbourhood or local environment; it can be the very essence of community.
At its worst, it can bring out prejudice, greed and elitism which can divide the community into factions. Far from being a cut and dried issue, it is as complex as the town of Whistler itself.
Alison Gill, from the Geography Department at S.F.U., has done various studies on the changing community of Whistler. She sheds some light on why nimbyism may be on the rise.
"When you're getting to the limits of growth," she says, "everything is getting really tight. There's a tendency for people to get more protective."
She cites Whistler's changing population as another reason. As more people move here who aren't directly dependent on tourism — such as professionals, consultants and retirees — there is less of a will to accommodate tourism employees. Gill also suggests that emerging class distinctions in Whistler may have something to do with the opposition to employee housing projects.
"There are definitely class distinctions in different neighbourhoods in Whistler," she says. "People are still very class ridden — they tend to translate that into real estate values."
Some people see such projects as a threat to the status of their neighbourhood, and in turn to the value of their property.
Matthew Cote is project manager with Columbus Properties Inc., the developer of the affordable housing project at Millar's Pond. His experience with affordable housing projects in Whistler bears out Gill's theory.
"It seems the attitude expressed by existing home owners suggests there are two classes of citizens in this community," he says. "The first class who already own a home want to impose a second class citizenship on those who don't."
This class consciousness is sometimes expressed through a kind of snobbery towards the working class of Whistler. "People are concerned about the stereotype of what the worker is," says Gill. A letter to council opposing the Whistler Mountain employee housing project on Alta Lake Road clearly reveals this type of attitude. "Employee Housing Complexes belong on lands which are segregated from other residential and recreational properties," wrote the couple from Twin Lakes. Some of their reasons for this segregation were that "Young transient individuals have less respect for others and other's property," and "theft will most likely increase."
Such comments are grounded more in fear than in fact. It is true that theft occurs at many Whistler condominium sites, but it is often the "transient" lifestyle of the absentee owners (travelling to and from Whistler once a week or month) and not the proximity of employee housing that makes their condos an easy target for thieves. The bizarre housing situation in Whistler — million dollar homes sitting empty while many people are unable to find a basement suite — also raises the potential for crime, as in any have/have not society. Prejudiced comments against seasonal workers serve only to reinforce this situation. They are an example of nimbyism at its worst.
But protecting our own backyards is not always rooted in fear and prejudice. In terms of the environment, looking after our own corner of the valley can help protect the area's ecological integrity for everyone. Humans are the only creatures living things in the valley that recognize our surveyed property boundaries anyway. Crabapple Creek, and the life it supports, runs down Whistler Mountain, through Brio Estates, the Whistler Golf Course, Whistler Cay, and into the River of Golden Dreams. That river, in turn, runs past Alpine Meadows and eventually the same water laps up at the shores of houses in Emerald Estates. Environmentally speaking, the entire valley is everyone's backyard.
For this reason, AWARE president Ken Melamed believes raising the development cap of 52,500 bed units to accommodate affordable housing is an environmental issue. "They've found a legitimate way to get beyond the development cap," he says. "It's development in another guise." Melamed believes that because previous councils failed to include employee housing within the development cap, remaining environmentally sensitive lands are now being proposed for development.
While he acknowledges the need for affordable housing, Melamed doesn't believe rushing into it at the expense of the environment is the way to go.
"There's some political manoeuvring going on," he says. "There's an election soon. They want to say we've got some employee housing coming up. Political motives are very short lived. A development is forever. I think people have the right to throw up their arms."
A perfect example of the quick-fix solution Melamed refers to was the eleventh hour plan last fall to alleviate the employee housing shortage with a trailer park on the edge of Alpine Meadows. "It was thought up out of desperation and I think everyone is glad it died a quick and painless death," he says. "I think nimbyism served the community really well. I think everybody realized that wasn't the way to go." The trailer park would have sat on private, forested land to the south of Alpine Meadows which is criss-crossed by walking and biking trails. It would also have opened up the land to more permanent future development.
Whistlerites banding together and speaking out against poorly thought out developments has proven to be a positive force in the community. As a vehicle for expressing community spirit, this kind of nimbyism has done more than anything else to keep Whistler from being entirely overrun by development. Max Kirkpatrick, councillor and chairman of the Whistler Valley Housing Society, says he does not want to quell this type of community spirit. But he says bringing low-cost housing into existing neighbourhoods has always met resistance.
"Right back to Nordic Court and Eva Lake Village, every project we've done has met tremendous opposition," he says. "You almost get immune to it because you know it's going to come."
Kirkpatrick's sentiment seems to be echoed by a majority in council who are on a course of passing affordable housing projects despite a certain amount of opposition from the public. They have passed three proposals this year already (Barnfield Farm, Whistler Mountain staff accommodation, and Millar's Pond), and have brought in a new Employee Housing Strategy which allows council to grant development rights beyond 52,500 bed units for projects that are 100 per cent affordable housing. Mayor Ted Nebbeling points out that it was a community decision years ago to "find a way to incorporate affordable housing into existing neighbourhoods."
Still, the question begs why the employee housing shortage wasn't addressed years ago, when so many development rights were given out for commercial developments and market housing. In 1987, the development cap was raised by 7,500 bed units for projects that contributed recreational amenities for a year round resort. But if we had waited five years, as many so-called nimbys suggested at the time, we might have discovered that not all of those amenities and development rights were needed to make Whistler a successful year round destination. For example, summer visits had already surpassed winter visits before the Green Lake golf course, one of the most controversial developments ever passed in Whistler, was opened in 1995.
In those five years we might also have discovered our severe lack of affordable and employee housing. The amount of land which the Green Lake golf course development occupies could have housed smaller affordable housing projects with a fraction of the environmental damage. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but the example might provide some perspective on our current frenzy to develop affordable housing.
With proposals flying at the housing committee at a rate of one a day, we need not jump at the first ones that come along, nor feel pressured by developers' threats to pull out if the process takes too long. At this final stage of Whistler's growth, council can sit quite comfortably in the driver's seat. They can take their time, encourage dialogue within the community and then hammer out the best possible deal. Perhaps their toughest job is listening to the many voices in Whistler and trying to determine which are speaking for their own private gain and which are speaking for the good of the community.