Buying the Farm
Overcoming objections to employee housing was a hallmark of Tapley’s Farm 20 years ago
By G.D. Maxwell
Shortly after Labour Day, 1979, business in the Capilano Real Estate office was anything but brisk. Ski season was too far off to get potential buyers from Vancouver excited about Whistler real estate and many locals were reeling from an almost meteoric rise in land prices following the announcement that Blackcomb Mountain was going to be developed.
Among the listings on Roger Milne’s and Will Moffitt’s desk was a 106 acre white elephant north Lorimer Road. The tract was a mix of flatland, watershed, rocky outcrop and marsh; the River of Golden Dreams ran through it as did BC Rail’s tracks. Wall & Redekop, the land’s owners, had failed in an attempt to rezone it from rural to residential and were anxious to dispose of it. Asking price: $800,000.
Of historical note was the land’s pedigree. It had been owned by Sewell Tapley, Myrtle Tapley’s father, Alex Philip’s father-in-law. Spreading north from the far end of Alta Lake, the land had been farmed by Phil Tapley, Myrtle’s brother. From 1925 until around the middle of the century it had been a working farm of hayfields, orchards, and livestock ranging from dairy cows to turkeys.
But now the turkey was for sale and Roger and Will had an idea. Housing in Whistler was scarce. The yearly dance of employees in search of a roof was as tight then as it remains today. The nascent Resort Municipality of Whistler had given the boot to its squatter community and many people who’d been desperately trying to save the scratch to buy a lot had recently seen their dreams vanish by an almost doubling of prices when the Blackcomb development was announced.
Above what is now Southside Deli, down the hall from Capilano Real Estate — in what were the only commercial offices in Whistler at the time — Doug Race practised law one day a week, working the rest of the time in Squamish with his partner Harley Paul. An office services business run by Ann Jepson and Martha Beatty nearly completed this hub of commerce. Roger and Will approached Ann and Doug with an interesting idea. How about getting a group of local people together to buy this land and develop it into housing lots?
The idea was elegant in its simplicity and it didn’t take long for the group to decide 80 people at $10,000 each was a workable figure: not so large as to be impossible to assemble and not so small as to be financially unrealistic. "We let the word out that if people were interested, they needed to come into our office with $100 and get on a list," Ann, now Chiasson, explained.
Word of mouth brought in people in fits and starts. The chance of getting a piece of land, albeit unzoned and unserviced, for ten grand was an appealing prospect as lots had risen to about the $100,000 mark in Alpine by then. The list of buyers got a real boost when Jeff Hesthammer came to the table. Jeff had spent a frustrating few years heading the Whistler Co-op Housing Plan and had a list of almost 50 people who might be interested in a project like this. One of those people was Francois Lepine.
Francois — voice of ‘da woikin’ class’ in Charlie Doyle’s The Answer — had been lured to Whistler from La Belle Province by his buddy Bob Dufour. At a time when Jim McConkey’s ski school consisted of six teachers, Francois was one of them. But more important to this story, he was dedicated to the idea of co-operative development and he was experienced with heavy machinery and land servicing.
With a growing buzz around town and the boost provided by Jeff’s co-op members, it wasn’t long before the list of potential investors was oversubscribed and a core of leaders emerged to put shape to the group. Harley Paul and Doug Race brought legal expertise to the table. Ken Beatty and Charlie McClain, a flamboyant lawyer from the US, had development experience. Ann lent her organizing skills to the group as secretary/treasurer. Jeff brought his co-op experience and Francois his fire and knowledge of big trucks.
A meeting was held at the Cheakamus Inn and a proposal was outlined to the potential investors. A corporation would be formed to make an offer of purchase for the land. The investors would have to put up $1,000 right away, $2,000 six months later and a final $2,000 six months after that. They would receive a 1/80th interest in the corporation which would work out to title of a building lot at a cost of maybe $25,000 - $30,000 once the land was rezoned and serviced. The corporation — named Mountain Development Corporation (MDC) — with half the value of the land as equity would borrow the funds necessary to pay it off, service and subdivide it. Simple, eh?
The plan was accepted and by early October, 1979, an offer was made to Wall & Redekop. The group was able to strike a favourable deal requiring little money up front and a substantial balloon payment upon successful rezoning.
With the deal in hand, MDC sent a letter to Whistler municipal council. It outlined their desire to rezone their land to residential. It explained they’d brought together 80 valley residents, local employees, and their intention was to subdivide and service building lots for these people. It stressed this was not a profit-making operation but one undertaken to let their shareholders buy in to the Whistler dream as inexpensively as possible. It asked for council’s support.
The only thing that exceeded the naiveté of MDC’s proposal was the skepticism with which it was greeted by council. There was concern that by approving MDC’s proposal, the muni would leave itself open to legal action by Wall & Redekop; after all, rezoning on this land had already been turned down. Alderman Sid Young was skeptical of the good intentions of MDC and perceived a discrepancy between the group’s stated philosophy and some members he suspected were only involved to make a quick buck flipping what would be a low-cost lot in a high priced market. "Over my dead body," Sid’s reputed to have told one of the directors.
Super Cadaver Meum — over my dead body — became the official motto of MDC.
What MDC didn’t know was about to become their ally in the fight for rezoning. "We (Council) were finally beginning to realize we had to deal with the issue of affordability," Garry Watson, who was on council at the time, explained. "Up until then, council had been totally engrossed in development of a Community Plan and in getting the town centre started. We hadn’t addressed the issue of affordability but there was a sudden realization, through talking to people in Aspen, that we had to do something to secure housing restricted to employees and retained as affordable over time." The need was great and the urgency was immediate; employee housing had to be built and built fast.
An Employee Housing Committee had been formed with Sid Young as its chairman. It had cobbled together an ad hoc group of employers in the valley to explore different ideas. There was a clear preference for a private approach to addressing employee housing needs, a preference that was both philosophical and seen as more efficient. The group retained Doug Sutcliffe as a consultant to prepare recommendations. Doug had been instrumental in developing Vancouver’s False Creek project, which had a significant contingent of restricted housing, and he elicited comments from interested parties, among them Garibaldi Lifts, Alta Lake District Ratepayers Association, The Chamber of Commerce and MDC.
Early in January, 1980, Sutcliffe issued a report recommending the municipality acquire or reserve tracts of centrally located Crown land for employee housing projects. One of three parcels specifically mentioned was a 20 acre piece along Lorimer Ridge. Council approved the report but added a recommendation that private lands, as well as Crown lands, also be considered and that the lands be made available at little or no cost to employers provided they agree to construct employee housing.
"That was our angle," Doug Race explained. "Doug Sutcliffe phoned me up one day around dinner time and all of a sudden the light came on. What we would do is get some part of our proposal included in their employee housing program."
In early February, the board of MDC was putting finishing touches on a development plan to present to council. Acceptance was still a crapshoot and the first $2,000 payment was due from the 80 shareholders. It seemed, in true Whistler tradition, a party was in order so one was planned for Saturday, February 2, down on the farm. There was to be bluegrass music, a potluck feast and whatever party favours the shareholders might bring with them. What there wasn’t supposed to be was rain, but being Whistler and being winter, the party was rained out and didn’t take place until the next day.
Like the whole MDC undertaking, it was a group effort. Roger Milne offered up his tape deck; Francois Lepine hooked up his speakers; someone scrounged up a generator and Andy Munster brought in a load of firewood in his 16 passenger Tucker snowcat. Al Davis — Tee-shirt Al — turned doughnuts in Andy’s cat to clear a firepit down at Phil Tapley’s old corral and a bonfire burned late into the night as plans were made for a future uncertain.
On February 11, 1980, Doug Race presented MDC’s proposal to council. Site I, some 31 acres running north along the railroad tracks from Lorimer Road was to be rezoned R1 and subdivided into 95-100 single family lots. 80 lots would be retained by individual MDC shareholders and the rest sold at market prices to pay for servicing. While this would require a change to the Community Plan — already undergoing revision — Doug noted a 1974 study identified this land as desirable for residential development.
Charlie McClain proposed a three-way agreement between MDC, the muni and local employers whereby MDC would dedicate 6.7 serviced acres along Lorimer Ridge, contiguous to the 20 acre piece already flagged by the muni, for employee housing at a density of 12 units per acre to be constructed as 80 condo units. He said MDC would be willing to provide general contracting services for construction of the units and felt if council approved the deal by March 1st, the housing could be up by December, 1980.
The fat was in the fire. Not only could MDC meet their goals of providing building lots for their 80 shareholders, they could provide a partial solution to the employee housing crunch: 80 condo units and rental suites in many of their own house plans.
The proposal was referred to the Employee Housing Committee which was to report back to council at its February 25 meeting. On February 25th, the council meeting was cancelled for lack of a quorum. The MDC proposal languished well past any reasonable deadline for construction to begin in time to have employee housing in place for the next ski season.
"Our jaws just dropped," Francois Lepine said. "We thought the muni would be so pleased. Instead, we heard every excuse under the sun for why this couldn’t be done."
"After that proposal went nowhere, we met with the Housing Committee and continued lobbying council but nothing seemed to be happening," Doug Race stated. Spring turned into summer and when autumn rolled around, the issue of employee housing began to heat up again as the expected shortage was going to be worse than ever. Except this year was an election year.
"Elections were coming up. We spread the word if they (council) weren’t going to do the rezoning, we were going to elect our own politicians," Francois said. While nowhere in the record is there any evidence the prospects of being booted out of office influenced the council of the day, the threat was not an idle one. With only 1,340 registered voters and a likely turnout nowhere near that number, MDC represented a formidable bloc.
"We had 80 shareholders and a waiting list," Doug explained. "Most of them had partners, spouses, friends; each of them knew other people in the community. It wasn’t unusual for us to get 150 or 200 people out to a candidates’ meeting. We didn’t control these people but it wasn’t lost on the candidates that they might be of a like mind. We decided to have our own all-candidates meeting. Now, it may be pure coincidence, but a week later I got a phone call from the muni housing committee and a week after that we had a meeting. It was on a Saturday and we met for the whole day; they even bought us lunch and we hammered out the essentials of the deal."
The deal reached that Saturday was approved by council at its meeting on October 17, 1980. It allowed the creation of an 80 lot subdivision with restrictions on ownership: all homes had to carry an employee ownership/occupancy covenant; the municipality had a right of first refusal on any subsequent sale; a House Buying Co-op was formed from names on the waiting list and any sale had to take place to the next person on the waiting list on a cost plus inflation index formula, in other words, an upside cap on appreciation. In addition, MDC granted 6.7 acres to the muni for realignment of Lorimer Road and for construction of medium density employee housing.
Notwithstanding the restrictions — collective wisdom held they were unenforceable — the deal was accepted by MDC shareholders and on December 10, 1980, one of "...the most memorable parties Whistler’s ever had..." was held at the Creek House Restaurant to assign lots to shareholders. MDC directors, decked out in white tie and tails, gathered up in the restaurant’s mezzanine and the shareholders sat at tables down below. MDC president, Charlie McClain, decked out in a red and white Santa Claus toque officiated. Francois Lepine explained lot layout and soil analysis. And accountant Brian Kerr — who was, according to Francois, so in his cups he had to be held to keep from toppling over the mezzanine’s railing — very officiously drew each shareholder’s name in turn and matched it with a lot number. As names were matched up with lots, lucky shareholders scrambled to find their piece of Whistler on maps distributed around the room. The mood was electric. All the obstacles had been overcome.
Well, not quite.
To close on the land and secure necessary financing for servicing, a loan of $1.75 million was brokered by Squamish Credit Union with the Saanich Commercial Credit Union. To get the loan, the land was put up for security as well as the personal guarantees of seven of MDC’s board of directors: Doug, Charlie, Francois, Ann, Ken, Jan Systad and Al Davis. Harley Paul and Murray Coates added their guarantees shortly thereafter. If council couldn’t believe a group of people could come together to develop and live on a piece of land without a profit motive, the thought of these sane, professional people signing personal guarantees must have been seen as downright otherworldly. But everyone had a strong belief in what they were doing.
And then the floods came.
On boxing day, 1980, after a bout of biblical rain, 19 Mile Creek washed out the bridge on Valley Drive in Alpine Meadows. Fitzsimmons Creek overflowed. Water stood in Tapley’s Farm almost to Lorimer Road. "We were already into servicing and along comes the flood," remembered Doug and Francois.
"We had pictures and oral history that Tapley used to keep cows there," Francois explained, "so we knew it was basically dry land if someone kept up with the drainage. BC Rail’s tracks, which ran across the land on an elevated dyke with only one drainage culvert, got washed out a time or two so it didn’t take much to convince them they needed to add more drainage and that pretty much solved that problem."
And finally, interest rates started to rise.
When it came time to begin closing on the lots in the middle of 1981, interest rates had soared into the 23-25 per cent range. The cost of serviced lots had come in at just under $24,000. That was still cheaper than market lots but there really wasn’t much of a market for lots and prices were tumbling. The whole Whistler experiment was in danger of melting down into the mother of all bankruptcies. Many of the initial 80 shareholders dropped out, unable to take on the debt load at prevailing rates. Others borrowed money from friends, family or took on partners to close their lot. The waiting list evaporated and at the end of the day, only 67 of the lots closed.
"That just paid off the loan," Doug said. "We still had some money outstanding to the principal contractor and we had an interesting meeting with him and his lawyer, Angelo Branca. Angelo was a very famous lawyer, well known in the Italian community, and Harley and I were young lawyers. We decided ahead of time all we could do was offer him a mortgage on the remaining lots, but we didn’t know how that would go over. When we did, he said ‘yeah’ and that was that. The meeting took five minutes and they jumped in their car and headed back to the city."
It took Ann Chiasson the better part of a year to flog those remaining lots. But the failure to sell them immediately also exposed the chink in the muni’s armor. Under the right of first refusal, they were offered to the muni who declined to buy them and the right fell away. Some years later, a legal challenge to the covenant restricting ownership to employees and to the appreciation cap resulted in them being dropped when council received a legal opinion they were unenforceable.
Part of the problem with the restrictions was the muni didn’t have the tools granted it in later revisions to the Municipal Act to tie up land. A bigger problem was this development was a private play from the beginning; the muni wasn’t putting up the land and wasn’t providing any subsidy; they were only providing rezoning. It never began as employee housing; it was strictly entrepreneurial from the start — do-it-yourself real estate development.
From its beginning, Tapley’s Farm subdivision was unique. From its residents partying in tee-shirts reading "I bought the farm" to their overwhelming choice of Easy Street for a street name, this was a neighbourhood unlike any other in Whistler. "It was the only subdivision that looked exactly the same on a Saturday night or a Wednesday night," Francois explained. "All the houses were occupied; people lived there."
"It’s still a family neighbourhood," Ann said. "It’s still Mothers, Dogs and Children: MDC. People used to joke that if they had no one to take care of their kid for the day they’d just drop them in our cul-de-sac and someone would feed them."
And while it failed in its efforts to remain affordable employee housing — current values are in the $700,000-$800,000 range — it set the stage for employee housing projects to come. "Tapley’s was the first step in a progression of steps to affordable housing," Garry Watson, who was retained in 1989 to set up employee housing policies, said. Nordic Court was the second where 12 of the 41 units were sold with a restrictive employee covenant and the other 30 were retained by the Housing Society. Lorimer Ridge was the third and Brio was the fourth and even though the mayor and council of the day gutted their resale formulae, the employee covenant remained. Millar’s Ridge and the very good projects undertaken by the current Housing Authority have refined the effort.
But, as Doug summed up, "Tapley’s made taxpayers out of a lot of squatters. It came off over some almost overwhelming odds." The odds were overcome by a group of people who believed in what they were doing and who, in the process, created a unique neighbourhood that retains its family flavour today.
"It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in my working life," Francois summed up, capturing the essence of this bit of Whistler history.
And as one anonymous participant said about the corporation’s motto, there’s no truth to the story Sid Young — who, once he came on-board, supported the project 100 per cent, and whose sons live there today — is buried under one of our speed bumps.