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Maxed Out: Pulling at the threads of Whistler’s social fabric

GettyImages MAX power lines
The situation playing out in Whistler's White Gold neighbourhood can be seen as a litmus test. Hold on a bit longer, or abandon hope? Stay tuned.

“From this valley they say you are leaving…

We shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile...”

–Red River Valley

“I mentioned this (leaving Whistler) to a lot of friends of mine, and somebody said, ‘Well, you’re abandoning Whistler,’ and I said, ‘No, it feels like Whistler is abandoning me.’”

You and a whole lot of other folks who’ve been here a long time, Keith. That sucking noise you hear is longtime Whistleratics pulling up deep roots and leaving town. 

The sentiment—reported in last week’s Pique—was voiced by White Gold resident Keith Auchinachie in response to the pending property tax bill he and other homeowners in the neighbourhood just north of the village face. Like so many others, he’s staring into a pool of unwanted expense, the depth of which is unknown. But huge.

In the Before Time—before covid—some White Gold residents commenced a Local Area Service petition to get approval from both the residents of White Gold and the RMOW to bury the overhead power lines.

To be honest, I understand their position. Pulling into the neighbourhood there is a veritable cat’s cradle of lines running every which way down the sides and across the roads. While not the blight some who live there may think, it is ugly. 

But not as ugly as a slim majority of homeowners leveraging their aesthetic sensitivities to hobble their neighbours, who may be less financially comfortable, with an unknown but sizable tax bill to make the ugliness go away.

And here I always thought it was just the RMOW who undertook expensive projects without knowing the actual costs. Silly me.

Once again, late last month, residents opposed to the project were out and vocal before council in an attempt to call a halt to the project. Their arguments came down to cost and fairness.

Cost is still a black hole. The estimate in December 2020 was $4.6 million to bury the power lines. That worked out to $38,751 per homeowner. The options were to suck it up all at once if they happened to have that much in the “I don’t know what to do with all this money” kitty, or bleed it out slowly over the course of 30 years with a couple of thousand bucks tacked on to their annual property tax bill (or, if they qualify under provincial property tax deferral programs, homeowners can defer the cost together with their regular property taxes).

That was enough to leave some of them wondering where the closest AED machine might be. But that was just the first estimate.

Since then, the projected cost has gone up by an RMOW toilet unit—nearly $3 million more! So root around in the mattress and find another 8 grand each, folks. C’mon, you must have it; you’re Whistler homeowners and everyone knows that means you’re filthy rich. 

Of course, this is still an estimate. The meaning of estimate in the current state of markets ravaged by supply chain disruptions, vanishing workers, skyrocketing costs of virtually everything, increasing labour costs and worker militancy has been reduced to a wild-ass guess. The fact is no one knows for certain how much this project is going to cost.

Jumping into a project with uncertain costs is best left to people with unlimited assets, or, in the case of the RMOW, the ability to increase taxes or juggle capital budgets. For many White Gold residents, jumping into a project with uncertain costs means staying or leaving.

The myth of the wealthy Whistler homeowner is just that: myth. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of wealthy homeowners here. Some of them are even residents, people who live here, contribute to the community, plan to stay until their best before date rolls around. Others probably need a GPS to find Whistler from YVR.

But a lot of the ones in White Gold are house-rich and cash-poor. They’ve won the longevity lottery. They arrived here when White Gold was a new neighbourhood and building lots were affordable, if not cheap. They arrived here later and sunk almost everything they had into a home. They lived here, worked here, volunteered here. Grew roots. 

And now they’re wondering whether they can stay. Or whether they’ll join the increasing numbers of longtime locals who have looked around, weighed the benefits of staying where their social networks are as opposed to moving somewhere else and decided to hit the road.

It seems as though it’s been impossible to have conversations with friends—especially since we’ve actually been able to get together socially—and not hear about someone else, someone who’s been here since near the beginning, who has decided they just can’t stay any more.

The reasons vary. There’s an increasing chasm between the wealthy new homeowners— many of whom never actually looked at what they were buying, it being not a home but just a line on their balance sheet—and people who remember a time when nobody was crazy enough to invest in Whistler property unless they were going to try and make a go of living here. Some just can’t stomach what the mountains have become under current ownership. Some simply need more access to health-care than the town can provide. Some just want to cash out and enjoy their retirement.

But many, like the ones who pleaded with council, just want to stay in their homes without being hit with a huge bill to make their neighbourhood more beautiful. Their arguments hinged as much on fairness as they did on cost.

While 50-per-cent-plus-one may be enough to win a seat on council, there’s a gut-level revulsion to applying that metric to decisions that negatively impact people in fundamental, personal ways. Social scientists have long referred to it as the Tyranny of the Majority. 

Whether the project proceeds or not is up to council. If the best wild-ass guess of costs remain above the initial guess, there will be another petition, another 50-per-cent-plus-one vote. Or council can just pull the plug on the project. If the sun rises in the west and costs come in below the first guess, council can still decide to not proceed. 

In some ways, it doesn’t really matter. Absent a catastrophic world event—lookin’ at you, Putin—White Gold will eventually go the way of other Whistler neighbourhoods. The current homeowners will eventually sell. The new buyers will not be Whistler residents except in name only. It will cease to be a vibrant neighbourhood and gradually take on the dark, empty-home quality of other places in town. 

But for now, it can be seen as a litmus test. Hold on a bit longer to the sense of community that’s existed since the dream became reality, or abandon hope and embrace the dark, empty future? Stay tuned.