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A time to plan

Whistler's official community plan and comprehensive development plan were designed to serve the town in the 1990s, but do they meet present and future needs?

"Look there go my people, I must find out where they are going so I may lead them"


By Caroline Lamont

Lamont Barratt Planning and Design

In the 1990s Whistler leapt onto the international stage with little warning, and has become one of world's premier four season destination resorts. There are many reasons for Whistler's success, including the committed community and the incredible natural amenities. But all of these would not have been discovered if it wasn't for long range land use planning.

A certain group of visionary and entrepreneurial spirits developed and followed a plan that created Whistler Village, resulting in this tourist town becoming a poster child for great planning and designing. The village is charming, functional and a retailer's dream, while the surrounding lands provided complementary resort and community amenities.

These plans went beyond site planning and design and limited the amount of growth to ensure that development was responsible and appropriate. From the 1970s through to the early 1990s the village master plans and the various versions of the Official Community Plan identified what the resort and community needed to thrive, then set an achievable, albeit ambitious, course of action.

In the 25 years following the Resort Municipality of Whistler's incorporation, the master plans for the village have come close to build-out. Recently, the municipality, together with business, has been further updating and enhancing the original master plan concepts with the Village Enhancement Project.

The long range planning for the entire resort community relies on the 1994 Official Community Plan (OCP) and 1994 Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP), together with the more recent Vision 2002 document. The OCP sets detailed policies regarding land use, development, servicing and protection of the natural environment, while the lesser known CDP contains council's policy statement describing the overall strategy for the development and management of the community and the resort.

In the past few years the municipality has further collected ideas and thoughts from the community and developed the Vision 2002 document. The Vision is what and whom Whistler wants to be, and takes into consideration the community's values and priorities.

Developing a long range strategy for Whistler is not a simple task as this town has always been a hotbed for land use controversy. It is time to wonder if the existing OCP and the CDP were intended and are able to adequately serve the community and the resort in the long term (10-plus years) given the rapidly changing character and needs of Whistler.

The current OCP continues the policy intent of its predecessor, the 1989 Official Community Plan, whereby growth management policies were developed directing growth to fulfill resort and community needs. The key objective of the 1989 OCP was the development of amenities that would ensure the year round success of the resort. Two golf courses and a tennis resort were developed through these policies.

In the early 1990s Whistler was recognized as a superb mountain resort with tremendous potential, and development boomed as Marketplace and the surrounding subdivisions of Blackcomb, Nicklaus North and Millar's Pond received their approvals. Even though the municipality had committed to most of these developments by 1990, the community grew concerned about the amount and pace of development and the environmental trade-offs. The municipal decision-makers then attempted to address the growth issues through community consultation. This led to the revamping of the OCP only three years following the implementation of the 1989 OCP, with a focus of establishing a moratorium on uncommitted development, retaining the existing bed unit allocation and identifying and preserve significant environmental features.

It is clear in the introduction and in the policies of the OCP, that the growth management strategy was not intended to be a long term planning approach for the municipality:

" There is concern in Whistler with the changes that will occur as the community grows from its current capacity of 30,000 bed units to the current committed size of approximately 52,600 under current OCP and zoning designations. At present, there appears to be little need to further increase the ultimate size of Whistler, as the community already has considerable remaining approved capacity for all forms of development. It is imperative to make good use of the 'breathing room' afforded over the short term to comprehensively address questions about the long-range future of Whistler."

The December 1999 municipal bed unit inventory reports that there are now approximately 44,400 developed bed units (80 per cent of build out) and does not include projects occupied in 2000, including 19 Mile Creek, Riverside Campground, the Westin Resort, Nesters employee housing or developed single family homes.

The CDP document is consistent with the OCP as it identifies a key goal: "To plan for the long-term development of the resort and the region. The CDP provides the foundation for the longer term planning process for Whistler, by creating a several-year window of limited approvals and by initiating a resort and community monitoring system. This opportunity should be used to address long-term fundamental questions about the future of Whistler, such as: the ultimate size of the community and the resort; the regional relationship between the resort and other existing and potential development areas; long range transportation planning; and the continued provision of a range of housing types for residents and employees." To date there has been little discussion on Whistler's ultimate size or the prospect of regional expansion.

In reviewing council's guiding document, Vision 2002, the document sets the long term goal for: " A strong healthy community where growth and development are managed and controlled, where the needs of its residents are met, where community life and individual well being are foster where the diversity of people is celebrated and where social interaction, recreation, culture and health services and life long learning are accessible to all ." Vision 2002 tells us what we are, what we want to be and our priorities, but it does not attempt to challenge the appropriateness of the current growth management strategy. Furthermore the OCP and CDP have not kept pace with the Vision 2002 document, or other recent initiatives including the Environmental Strategy, the Transportation Advisory Group study and the Province's Local Government Act.

In the short term the OCP and CDP moratorium on uncommitted development ensured that many community and resort amenities would be realized, including golf courses, a campground, affordable housing, a tennis resort, and public parks. The goal was to have a vibrant tourism economy supported by a stable community.

The continued reliance on the policy directions of the OCP, however, has meant the municipal decision making function has not kept pace with a rapidly changing resort and community. It has also meant that local residents and businesses have made decisions which may not be in keeping with the municipality's vision. The long term application of this short term policy approach is threatening the success of the resort as well as the well being of the community. The cracks that are forming concern the use of our valley's valuable land resources, the ability to be a liveable community and the security of a healthy and diversified economy.

Appropriate use of the limited land resources

The growth moratorium and the extensive development review of new construction has been effective in preserving valuable natural amenities and providing orderly growth. The bigger issue with the lack of current long range planning is whether Whistler will have the land resources in which to provide all the needed facilities, given most of the potential sites are privately owned and/or environmentally sensitive.

In referring to the municipality's five year financial plan, sites are needed outside the village to accommodate the following: affordable housing, a third elementary school, animal control, cemetery expansion, municipal golf course, and the Olympic venues. The OCP discusses the need for additional land for affordable housing, heavy industrial sites, a high quality business park, a northern gas station, community facilities, churches, private education facilities, a transportation centre and day skier satellite parking. These needs are in addition to allocations to establish and maintain a protected area network, as identified in the draft Environmental Strategy. The municipality needs to determine if developable lands from Function Junction to Emerald Estates can support any amount of new development, even if there are clear community and resort benefits. Lands that are disturbed or offer infill or redevelopment opportunity should be highlighted and planned, not ignored.

The lack of a new long range planning strategy is jeopardizing the limited land resources as private landowners are frantically trying to find potential in their rural resource-zoned property. These frustrated property owners (who thought the moratorium had a shorter life expectancy given the policies of the OCP/CDP) have been applying different techniques such as threatening to build undesirable "as of right" uses (such as large lot subdivisions, hostels or RV parks), while others have decided not to wait and have constructed the "as of right" use of one single family home or a hostel. In addition to the inefficient use of land these developments are also not subject to the same environmental and design standards of other committed developments.

In response the municipality has chosen not to deal with the big picture in the growth management strategy, but rather has preferred to further reduce the landowners "as of right" uses. The RR1 zoning amendment being considered by Council for undeveloped RR1 properties effectively removes all other currently permitted rural and resource uses and only permits large lot (100 acre) estate homes. In reality this may not be downzoning as given the current real estate market such estate development appears to be financially achievable. The end result of this Band-Aid approach will be the continued proliferation of inefficient and often insensitive estate home development, but developers have few other options.

Another threat to the local vision is the municipality's lack of preparedness concerning the new provincial legislation to permit density bonusing under the Local Government Act. There are currently no municipal policies relating to the legislation that allows the municipality to consider an upzoning in exchange for a financial contribution.

For the most part there are only a handful of sites that do not need bed units but could increase their value with additional density. The recent Taluswood lots may seem like an isolated application, but keep in mind there are subdivisions which still have unused bed units (bed unit allocations often fluctuate during actual build out), and could also make a similar request to allow larger homes.

The current OCP policies should be amended to appropriately reflect the Local Government Act legislation before this loophole undermines the land use planning in the valley. Let's-make-a-deal planning is not sustainable.

Ensuring a liveable community

The Vision 2002 document recognizes the importance of residents, their well being and their diversity. The skyrocketing land costs caused by the moratorium, however, is threatening the town' s liveability. The municipality has effectively anticipated this progression and diligently constructed and secured over 1,400 units of affordable housing. The Whistler Housing Authority indicates that these restricted units house approximately one-third of the existing workforce, while privately owned market units provide the remaining accommodation.

Even with the OCP/CDP policies to exclude affordable housing from the bed unit cap (affordable housing is one of the few forms of development for which a landowner can get development rights), and the commitment to the Whistler Housing Authority there is a concern that the existing market properties may not provide the same amount of housing opportunities for local employees in the future. The realization by property owners of their new-found equity or the burden of high taxes may result in few market units being available for local employees while the Whistler community flees to Squamish, Pemberton and more affordable Interior mountain resorts.

It is likely that the Olympic bid, if successful will further exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing. If local decision makers want to ensure the existence of a local workforce and community, the OCP needs to be amended to determine if all the needed employee housing can be realistically achieved within the existing developed areas or whether there is an need to seek out new neighbourhoods.

In addition to the cost and availability of housing, the liveability of Whistler is further being challenged by the increasing costs and decreasing selection of local oriented goods and services. The current OCP limits the expansion and new development of commercial uses, except for neighbourhood-oriented products and services. This policy was appropriate in the early 1990s when the municipality did not want to threaten the success of the village, but this should no longer be an issue.

Local entrepreneurs, resident-serving retailers and professional offices have either been competing with industry for space in Function Junction, facing incredible rents in the village or establishing a home based businesses. When basic goods and services for the local community can not be provided affordably, the residents commute to Squamish or Vancouver.

There are several strategic underdeveloped, undeveloped or disturbed lands in the valley which have some commercial potential, where together with effective planning and design (no strip malls) they could be a great asset to the community. These developments may even help with the transportation issues; if certain goods and services can be closer to where locals live then a car trip is not necessary. In addition, more locationally attractive and affordable office space may result in home offices being converted back to residential uses.

A healthy and diverse economy

The continued application of the growth management strategy, together with the municipality's inability to designate additional sites for heavy industry and business parks (an OCP directive) is making the resort community vulnerable. Whistler for the most part is a single industry town where secondary industry such as construction, government, sales and service are all dependent on the number of visitors that the resort attracts. In view of the less optimistic economic forecasts and increased competition in the resort market, Whistler must look to alternative industry.

The CDP recognizes this vulnerability and identifies a key goal: ".to expand and diversify the local economy by continuing to increase visitation to the resort and by allowing other kinds of economic activity that is compatible with the resort." In particular the CDP recognizes the importance of new computer and communications technology to enable more people to live and work in Whistler, adding new sources of employment and income.

These policies have not been addressed, as there has been little local government support for locally-based businesses; nonetheless there have been several successful high tech, professional services and cottage industries.

Although there may be an argument not to encourage new business as it competes for valuable employees and housing, it should be acknowledged that the bulk of these new positions are higher paying and are able to off-set the lower paying and seasonal service jobs. Diversification will ensure a healthier resort community.

The long range land use policies of the Resort Municipality have more than past their expiration date.

It is clear that the municipality needs to go back to the community and RR1 landowners as soon as possible to determine how we can establish future land use policies that can implement Whistler's vision. This in no part means that the municipality should open the gates for development, but rather initiate dialogue and effectively plan for the next 10-25 years.

The municipality needs to identify sites that could be developed without being a detriment to the environment, while also providing development that would ensure the social and economic success of the resort community. The municipality must also wholly embrace progressive and innovative community outreach programs to ensure a good representation of the community. The prospect of undertaking such an endeavour is overwhelming, and long overdue. But perhaps in 25 years Whistler will be known internationally not only as a successful destination resort but also a diverse and healthy community.

Caroline Lamont was a planner with the Resort Municipality of Whistler for seven years and director of planning services for the City of Steamboat Springs, Colorado for two and a half years.