The GEMS school in Pemberton has finally gotten past the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.
After months of deferrals, the regional board decided to forward a non-farm use application to the province's Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) at a meeting on Monday, Jan. 26.
The application, put forward by Pemberton resident and GEMS proponent Cam McIvor on June 2, 2008, asks the commission to allow non-farm use on a 39-acre tract lying on the Ravens Crest property east of the town centre.
McIvor wants to set aside that property for a GEMS international private school. GEMS has educational facilities on every continent. Now begins the wait to see if the ALC will allow them to do that.
McIvor made a presentation to directors showing that Ravens Crest is the only place that the GEMS school can go within Pemberton.
"I believe it was well-received," he said. "It's basically fact-based, based on the availability of land that's appropriate for the school. The soil science says there's limited capability of the rock outcrop where we're going to situate the school.
"I think the science lends itself that it's, in our opinion, good land use."
If the ALC approves the application, then the SLRD will have to rezone the property to allow the school to be built there.
That could be impacted, however, by a Village of Pemberton boundary expansion that's currently being considered by B.C.'s Ministry of Community Development.
Last November, the Village of Pemberton held a referendum to gauge community support for a boundary expansion that would include areas such as the Ravens Crest property and the Rutherford Creek Power Plant. The referendum passed, and now the ministry is considering an application to expand to those areas.
McIvor said that if the expansion goes through in the midst of GEMS planning it won't hurt the school.
"The timing of the boundary extension is unknown," he said. "If zoning takes place in the regional district prior to boundary extension that zoning is adopted at the time of boundary extension, so the GEMS does not lose any time or momentum."
Only one director voted against sending the non-farm use application to the ALC, Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed, who in the past has not seen eye to eye with proponents on the school.
Last August he expressed concern that "trends of gentrification" are happening in the Pemberton Valley, meaning that developments are occurring that are driving up the price of housing. The proposed school, he said, could be part of that trend.
This time out, Melamed said he was giving a voice at the SLRD table to people within the valley who are concerned about the proposal.
"What I actually objected to was the portion of the motion that said the SLRD supports in principle the school," he said. "I say that from experience giving some kind of expectation to the developer, as long as they do all the right things then they should go forward.
"What happens is they end up investing more money over time, then there's an expectation that it gets to a point where it's too late to say no."
Though he supports the education industry in general and believes it can be a good economic generator, Melamed doesn't feel that one side of the GEMS debate is being heard.
"Obviously there's varying sides," he said. "I was giving voice to that side of the community that was expressing concern."
The fate of the GEMS school now rests with the ALC's South Coast Panel. If it approves the proposal, then the regional district will look at rezoning the property. McIvor believes the ALC will hold its next meeting in April. A call to Colin Fry, executive director of the commission, was not returned for comment.
Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy said the SLRD's approval is simply the first step in getting the GEMS school built.
"This is just the beginning of the process," he said. "This is going to the ALC and they may well deny it, who knows. We're hopeful that they approve it, as there is lots of precedence for this type of facility."
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