Proponents of the proposed Brandywine Creek hydro project warned Whistler council Tuesday it could be setting a dangerous precedent if the municipality gets involved in negotiations with First Nations over the project.
Ulf K. Ottho, a lawyer representing Pacific Northwest Energy Corporation, the company proposing the run-of-river hydro project, told councillors if a third level of government gets involved in negotiations with First Nations it could open up all kinds of issues. Some municipalities have made a point of staying out of negotiations with First Nations specifically for this reason, Ottho said.
Ottho and David Kiess, vice president of PNEC, were the only speakers at a public hearing on a rezoning application for the project Tuesday. The hearing was adjourned but will reconvene June 3 in order to allow time for representatives of the Squamish and Lilwat Nations to make presentations on the project.
Councillors received a letter from the First Nations asking them to postpone the public hearing. But Ottho and Kiess said they had been trying to meet with the First Nations for the last year and had been unable to get a response. Last week, Ottho said, the First Nations finally agreed to a May 27 meeting with PNEC.
"Im very disappointed, after invitation, after invitation, that their letter asks for a postponement of the public hearing," Ottho said, pointing out the public hearing had already been delayed once and the company is on a tight timeline for construction.
"Im all for dialogue at the early stages. What happened here is dialogue postponed," Ottho said.
He added the provincial government was well away of PNECs efforts at dialogue and took those efforts into consideration when it granted the company its water licence and land tenure.
If approved, the Brandywine Creek project will generate roughly seven megawatts of electricity. PNEC has been working on the project for three and a half years and has negotiated a 20-year contract to sell power to B.C. Hydro, starting next summer.
In the last two years Whistler has tried to reach out to the Lilwat and Squamish Nations and build relationships with the First Nations. The point was raised by Mayor Hugh OReilly and Councillor Dave Kirk at the May 6 council meeting where the Brandywine project was discussed, with Kirk saying council was in a difficult position.
Kiess said the company had included First Nations in discussions from the beginning but, "At some point last year there was a left turn on the project and they broke off negotiations."
Ottho suggested the reluctance of the Squamish and Lilwat Nations to come to the negotiating table was based on the findings of consultants Creekside Resources. He said the firm, which is based in Mount Currie, found no evidence of aboriginal title to the Brandywine Creek area, as defined by the Delgamuukw decision. First Nations historically used the area for berry picking and a trap line but he said Delgamuukw places the onus on First Nations to prove they occupied the land on a continuous basis.
PNEC has worked with the municipality over the past three and a half years, moving the power plant inside municipal boundaries and enlarging plans for the facility. If it is approved it will generate between $150,000 and $200,000 in property tax for the municipality annually.
Councillors indicated they will consider third reading on the rezoning application at the June 3 meeting, following the public hearing.
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