By Loreth Beswetherick
Function Junction was never intended as a commercial area, it’s an industrial area and the municipality will not be issuing licenses to new business that don’t conform to the current zoning.
That is the official word from director of planning Mike Purcell.
For the last 15 years, however, the RMOW has been issuing, and renewing, licences for businesses not permitted under the current zoning.
Lawyers, accountants and providers of any other professional services not listed in the bylaw drawn up in 1983 are operating "illegally" in the municipality’s eyes.
Not so, says Function lawyer Ted Ralfe. "A lawyer use is not substantially different from some of the uses allowed in the bylaw." According to Ralfe, in terms of the law on use, that makes them legitimate. He said the municipality must either recognize the uses are virtually the same or rezone the area to reflect actual use.
He is joined in his call by other Function tenants, realtors and building owners. They argue professionals in Function can offer affordable services to locals because of lower overheads. They also say there is a shortage of office space in the village. In a letter to the mayor and council, Ralfe said commercial realtors advise him "there is unfulfilled demand for better than 8,500 square feet of office space within Whistler and only 535 square feet available in the town centre, while there is virtually none here in Function Junction."
Purcell, however, said he is concerned legitimizing the professional use could drive up rents and squeeze industry out of Function. He said office use was originally excluded to protect the viability of the town centre. He added the municipality will be conducting a commercial and industry needs study "within the next couple of years."
Municipal administrator Jim Godfrey said the study will help determine where the future needs of the community will lie in terms of service-commercial needs and professional-office needs. "We seem to have a situation where business licences have been issued for non-permitted uses, We are looking at a study to see how we should address that particular issue."
Purcell pointed out there is cap on development in Whistler. "Do we keep growing because a lawyer wants to open another office?"
In the meantime, Purcell said, the RMOW will not aggressively enforce the zoning. "Essentially we are not doing anything. We are not going to inconvenience any of the existing businesses there."
Until recently Function has had two zones — Industrial Service I (ISI) and Light Industrial Two (IL2). Purcell said the IS1 zone permits offices but they are limited to businesses "somewhat industry related." The IL2 zone — which stretches from the mini storage facility to the north end of Function — does not permit offices other than offices auxiliary to an industrial operation.
Ralfe said the list of offices allowed is arbitrary. "When they drew up that bylaw, they basically listed all of the businesses that were here in the early ’80s and simply included them. The offices that were here at the time (1983), you will find, have been included. There is no other rhyme or reason," said Ralfe. "It’s a very eclectic list. Even though there is essentially no difference between an engineer’s office and an accountant’s office in terms of the kind of traffic they generate, the reason engineers are permitted is simply because there was an engineer here, namely Jon Paine, and there wasn’t an accountant."
Purcell said that is not the case. He said everything permitted has close business ties with industrial activities.
The office use permitted in the IS1 zone includes the following: publisher, architect, commercial or graphic artist, drafting service, interior decorator, industrial designer, labour or trade organization, shipping agent, veterinary clinic contractor, courier service, computer service and duplicating service. Those not mentioned, are not permitted. The northern zone of Function, however, does not permit these offices unless they are an auxiliary use to the industry permitted there.
The municipality issued approximately 134 business licences for Function this year. The licences cover business including property management, accountants, lawyers, antique store, hairdressing, financial consultants river rafting company and photography.
Ralfe said he doesn’t believe the municipality will enforce the zoning. "I don’t think they will do it if they think it through because they will have a great deal of difficulty. I hope what they are trying to do is create a rezone down here."
Realtor Drew Meredith — who was instrumental in developing Function as past mayor — agreed there is a shortage of office space in the village. But it has only happened in the last six months, coming off the best winter season Whistler has ever had. He said the need is cyclical in nature and the demand isn’t overwhelming.
"Things have changed pretty dramatically," he said. "Last fall there was a supply and all the retailers were moaning about lack of business. But, they aren’t moaning any more and there is nothing to be had in the village." He said "A-space" — ground floor retail on Village Stroll — is "impossible" to find. But, he said the Function zoning is "a whole different argument."
"Second floor office space, whether in Function or the village, is something developers don’t want to build because it is hard to fill," said Meredith.
The second storey comes cheap for a developer and is a good use of land. He said industrial use generally takes place on the ground floor. "If the second floor in Function is not being used for a suite and it’s not being used for an office, then it is not being used for anything. It’s a waste." Meredith said there is enough land in Function to build these two storey buildings.
"If you take those tenants out, it won’t be good for Function. I would rezone Function to mirror the use that is actually occurring there."
Meredith said if any change should be made, the residential suites should be eliminated in favour of office space. "For every building you could have one residential suite and in some buildings there are probably five or six suites... now that’s a problem."
The average gross rent for office space in the village is $40 per square foot, compared to about $17 per square foot in Function. Meredith said reaching the development cap will probably push rents up.
"But I have to be cautious. There is never big demand for office space and office uses don’t represent a big part of the whole," said Meredith. "But clearly, over time, there will be more services coming into Whistler. There are a number of government agencies that are not currently represented here — maybe they never will be, but I think basically Function could fulfil that need if it’s strictly a zoning issue. If we have a finite amount of space, we are going to have a problem."
He said he doesn’t buy the argument that offices could ever squeeze out ground-floor oriented industry.
"The municipality didn’t turn a blind eye to what was going on," said Meredith. "They knew full well and I think they were just letting it evolve. But, they have to go back and zone it now for the way it is being used, maybe with a few changes. There is too much residential in there."
Function’s newest addition, the Pedlow warehouse, which was just issued a development permit this week, is zoned Light Industrial 3 (IL3) which only permits auxiliary offices, said Purcell. Another proposal working its way through the planning department, the Pomroy commercial building at Mons, will not allow offices either. It will be zoned Commercial Industrial 1 (CI1). The intent of the CI1 zoning there is to provide for limited commercial and industrial uses which complement the adjacent golf course development.