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RMOW approves Fitzsimmons Express upgrade

In lieu of new parking, the municipality will receive $200,000 annually until pay parking is introduced on Vail Resorts-owned lots
The updated Fitzsimmons Express lift will increase capacity from 1,850 to 3,300 skiers per hour.

On March 27, the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) mayor and council adopted parking bylaw amendments and a development permit at two hastily assembled special council meetings, ultimately paving the way for the expansion of Whistler Blackcomb's (WB) Fitzsimmons Express chairlift without the need for additional parking.

Under the current bylaws for RR1 zoning at Whistler Village Base, 0.50 parking spaces are required per hourly rated capacity of all base lifts. As the Fitzsimmons Express upgrade will significantly increase capacity from 1,850 to 3,300 skiers per hour, Vail Resorts would be required to provide an additional 725 parking spaces, equivalent to about half of the space in the Creekside Parkade, for the upgrade to be approved.

At a special council meeting held Friday, March 24 with little advance public notice, RMOW CAO Virginia Cullen said that with climate change becoming a growing concern and to keep to the Big Moves Climate Action Strategy of moving beyond the car, the municipality needs to encourage alternative forms of transportation instead of building additional parking.

“Given we are in 2023, and we are in the context of a climate emergency, adding additional parking, with the additional capacity for allowing additional cars, is not what’s needed right now," Cullen said in a presentation to council.

"With this in mind, the RMOW has been in discussions with Vail Resorts and the province around how to increase funding to our transit system in lieu of the parking requirement."

The amended parking bylaw comes with four conditions. The first condition is that Vail Resorts must create a parking study and share the data with the RMOW to improve understanding of parking utilization in Whistler, quantify how the parking is being used, and develop a database to inform the design of future solutions.

Second, the mountain operator must pay $200,000 annually in lieu of the additional required parking, working out to about $275 per spot, until pay parking is implemented on Vail Resorts-owned lots. Third, Vail must share revenue if or when the company decides to bring in pay parking on the lots/parkade it owns and direct that funding towards transit and active transportation improvements.

While Vail Resorts has not announced any plans to implement pay parking on its lots in Whistler, Cullen noted that the company recently brought in parking fees at several of its resorts in the U.S., such as Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood and Park City, and noticed a change in behaviour as more drivers have chosen alternative forms of transportation such as carpooling.

If Vail Resorts does try and bring in pay parking, it will have to be approved by the provincial government before it can be implemented, Cullen noted. The fourth and final condition is that Vail has to do public engagement with the community on paid parking models in fall 2023.

“There’s considerable uncertainty in terms of when and if this pay parking gets put in place. It’s not in the RMOW’s control. What we can see is a pattern at Vail Resorts for putting it in place because they are seeing some very positive behavioural changes as it relates to traffic and congestion and people carpooling to the hill,” Cullen said.

“I think we can only guess that it will be looked at in Whistler at some point, given what is happening in other resorts, and so this agreement has ensured that the RMOW will receive revenues that are in line with similar revenue-sharing models for parking we already have in place, but the details of that and the operating agreement would still need to be figured out.”

Whistler's mayor and council came out in near unanimous favour of the amended parking bylaw and development permit, with the sole voice of opposition coming from Councillor Ralph Forsyth, who encouraged rejecting the bylaw and permit, citing the need to solve current parking and congestion problems before approving more lift expansions.

“For the final time, guys, I encourage you to reject this. Everything that was just listed in there are all things that should be underway already,” Forsyth said at the March 24 meeting. "The only reason we’re sitting in this room at 4:30, almost 5:30 on a Friday, is because Park City rejected them for the same reasons we should. Figure out parking and figure out the highway congestion before you do a new lift.

"We’re not being treated as partners," Forsyth added. "We have no access to any data to help us make any decisions on this. The province has come in to try and bully us into making this decision. And we heard resoundingly through the election that the community feels deeply that the balance between the community and resort is completely out of balance."

Mayor Jack Crompton voiced his support for the amendment, citing the need to take the Big Moves Climate Action Plan seriously in addressing the challenges around climate change and will help address capacity issues in the resort.

“This decision, I think, is a step towards addressing our capacity issues. I share the concerns about the impacts of unmanaged visitation. I agree with Councillor Forysth that was the conversation during the election, but I’m convinced simply saying no to lift reinvestments takes us in the exactly wrong direction,” Crompton said.

Development Permit approved in rapid time

Mayor and council heard concerns from the public about the rushed approval process, as both the permit and bylaw amendments were approved at two online special council meetings in less than a week.

The quick turnaround was a result of Vail Resorts putting in its permit application on Jan. 6, leaving only three months for the RMOW to process the application, come up with plans to address the parking bylaw requirements and approve the development permit before the company planned to start construction at the end of March.

RMOW planner Mike Kirkegaard noted that, on average, a development permit application takes one and a half to 11 months to process, with the average time working out to five months. Due to the benefits of the lift upgrade project, staff prioritized the development permit. “I think we saw this as an important project, and we worked to address this project along with our other applications,” Kirkegaard said.

According to Cullen, the RMOW also had to remind Vail Resorts of the need for a permit four months after the company announced the lift upgrade.

“It was a step missed on Whistler Blackcomb’s end of things,” Cullen said. “It’s not the municipality’s responsibility to outline for every developer what their permit requirements are at the beginning of each project, but we did reach out once there was a formal announcement of the project in December as a curiosity reminder.”