The gorillas in the room... 

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So what is it? Too big or too small? To cap or not to cap? Will Whistler's grand experiment to grow only so big and no bigger get a real-world test or will it just become another quaint, Quixotic idea relegated to the dustbin of history?

There were three 800 pound gorillas in the room last Tuesday when Council held its last public hearing on the proposed changes to the Official Community Plan. OK, actually there were only two gorillas. The third sent notice through its lawyers.

The easiest of the gorillas to deal with is the one that's, well, impossible to deal with: First Nations. Our First Nations neighbours aren't happy with the OCP. I'm not sure what could, short of seeing everyone who is not status thank them for the use of their land on their way down valley, be included in the document that would make them happy. But local government has passed this over to the place where jurisdiction lies, provincial and federal levels. I feel certain it is an issue that will not be resolved in our lifetimes.

The other two gorillas both have issues with the same thing, just from different points of view. That would be Whistler's bed unit cap.

The bed unit cap — our own metric to define the town's limits to growth — has, over the years, taken on mythic status. If one were cynical, one might say that's because it is, largely, a myth.

It was borne out of an attempt to define the carrying capacity of this mountain pass we're squatting on, that is to say, the comfortable number of bed units — which are even harder to express in terms of buildings or people — that would keep this place from becoming too big, just another Vancouver exurb.

Originally set in 1990 at just under 50,000, a chart of its growth, conveniently located in the draft OCP, looks like the marks one might find on a door frame, showing the growth of a child who experienced an unexpected spurt just before the Olympics. It currently stands at 61 thousand and change, with just over 8,000 units left to build.

And therein lies the mythic nature of the cap. We've never reached it. It's been like a mirage in the desert, a reason to move forward but never actually within our grasp. Since we've never reached it, we can easily pay homage to it like a deity. It's the ultimate "something" we'll think about tomorrow, Scarlett.

But tomorrow is, almost literally, tomorrow. And today, there are people who want to discuss the capiness of that cap. Is it as strong and impregnable as a motorcycle helmet or as open and breezy as a golf visor?

Whistler Blackcomb wants to know. While not specifically asking the cap be raised, they've nonetheless brought up an interesting question. Say, hypothetically, the cap was to be raised. How would those new bed units be allocated? Who'd get them? The MotherCorp wants to make sure their contribution to the development of Whistler is recognized and they'd be, if not first, very near the front of the line.

Now, on the face of it, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable ask. But it raises a most interesting question. How exactly would the cap be raised if the cap were to be raised? The most likely scenario would be a developer would come to the table with a proposal we couldn't refuse. Something so desirable, so mouthwatering, so tantalizing we'd lift our cap to make it a reality.

Yet, the nature of WB's request presupposes a different scenario. Something more along the lines of a future council deciding to raise the cap to, say, 70,000 bed units and selling off the development rights to those extra beds to developers in much the same way companies float share issues or sell bonds.

The other gorilla came to the meeting in a gown and mortarboard. Whistler International Campus — and forgive me but I'll probably always call it WhistlerU — paid homage to the myth but wanted to qualify it, which is a derivative function of the developer coming to the table with an offer we can't refuse.

Their qualification? Student accommodation. After all, what's a university without students? And where would students live if not in dormitories and other forms of student accommodation. Problem is — and it's only one of the problems with WhistlerU — is there's no bed cap allocation for 1,000-1,500 students, each one of whom needs a bed while they're matriculating.

Would student beds be like resident-restricted beds, which is to say outside the cap? Resident-restricted beds are meant to house employees and retirees, both of whom are, or have been, vital to making the town successful. Housing them is a specific, strategic goal of the municipality. Students are, axiomatically, vital to making a university work, although the same cannot necessarily be said to be true about universities making students work. The municipality has no current position on supporting a university. But I digress.

The purpose of the OCP, and I'm lifting this right out of the document itself, " to guide decisions on planning and land use management for the resort community over the next 5-10 years and beyond (my italics) in support of our Whistler2020 vision: To be the premier mountain resort community — as we move toward sustainability."

The OCP is no here-today-gone-tomorrow document. And while it's flexible enough to "recognize and seize opportunities" as they come along, its first key theme is for all of us to, "work together within a limited growth context."

So, to torture a metaphor, are these gorillas barking up the wrong tree? Is Whistler's bed unit cap set in stone? Or is this something we should be talking about?

In all the consultations for the OCP, there has been an underlying context. Whistler 2020 has provided some of it and the bed unit cap has filled in the gaps. But neither embrace the opportunity, or threat, posed by WhistlerU. Neither contain a mechanism — as opposed to the potential — for changing the cap.

So what should we do with these gorillas?

Personally, I believe we should be talking about them, debating them, holding rousing town hall meetings and hashing them out. I'd like to hear the proponents of scraping the cap debate those who favour keeping it. I'd like to hear WhistlerU make its case and defend its idea against those who believe it represents a bad new direction for the town to take.

These are issues that need a big airing, not the tightly-controlled, confined, storyboarded public hearings we've grown accustomed to.

If the muni doesn't want to host them, perhaps they'd be fodder for the Museum's debate series. Hey, at least it'd be a start. Better than discovering gorillas lurking about at your last public hearing on your premiere planning document.


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