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Opinion: When will Whistler have its fill?

'The implications are many, so the process must be transparent and equitable for all.'
Could Whistler make better use of its land base? A revamped Infill Housing Program aims to find out.

If you’ve yet to dive in to Whistler’s new Housing Action Plan, presented to mayor and council on May 16, well… we don’t blame you.

The mid-May weather was spectacular, so you are forgiven for eschewing dreary, stifling council meetings and long staff presentations for sun-drenched bike rides and lake days.

You work hard, and you’ve earned a break.

But with the temperatures dropping and some clouds in the forecast, why not take this time to learn more about Whistler’s current housing situation, and how local officials are working to make it better?

The new plan presented on May 16 covers familiar territory, serving almost as a catch-all for Whistler’s various housing initiatives.

To put it lightly, there is a lot to unpack, and Pique is planning a series of follow-up stories based on the information in the report (watch for that in the weeks to come).

But one aspect in particular comes with some heavy baggage attached: a commitment to revisit infill housing in the resort.

For some, the very mention of infill housing can inspire anxiety—the prospect of densifying properties and transformed neighbourhoods is the stuff of nightmares for NIMBYs near and far, and in a place like Whistler it has proved a near non-starter.

Even though the resort has had an official infill pilot program on the books in Alpine since 2008, you can name on one hand the number of successful infill housing applications that have come through Whistler’s municipal hall in the past decade and a half.

“We’re never going to know whether infill housing works, because we never approve them,” Councillor Ralph Forsyth opined at a council meeting in March 2019—one of the rare occasions in which council actually approved an infill housing application (in that case, allowing the owners of a lot in Emerald to subdivide it into one employee-restricted lot and one market lot—and yes, the neighbours opposed it).

“The assumption is always that it’s going to be a disaster, and somebody is going to build a 5,000-square-foot house on a parcel that’s too small, when the only example we have turned out beautifully—the two skinny lots were subdivided, and two local families got to raise their kids in Whistler, when they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

The concept of infill housing is contentious at its core, conspiring as it does with two primal anxieties we all must carry, somewhere deep down: a fear of aggressive, irreversible change; and a fear of that which we cannot control.

It’s not hard to see why someone would be opposed to their neighbour one day waking up and deciding that their house is about to become two (or more)—how will that affect my quality of life? My property value? The shape and form and feel of my neighbourhood? The noise levels and fire risk and parking?

The implications are many, so the process must be transparent and equitable for all.

But even with transparency and structure firmly in place, Whistler has struggled with the very concept of infill housing.

Take a perfectly serviceable application from 2016, in which a Whistler family attempted to use Alpine’s infill zoning to subdivide their newly purchased lot into two. Everything was above board as far as the infill policy was concerned, and staff recommended approval. The only reason the application came to council at all was because of a minor variance permit.

And yet, arguably stepping outside of its bounds, council voted 5 to 1 to nix the application outright, and then put a moratorium on the infill program altogether—a vote a senior municipal manager referred to after the meeting as a “trainwreck.”

The homeowners were blindsided by the decision.

“This has taken six months, it’s taken a lot of money. We’ve gone on the advice of the municipality. There are no guarantees obviously, but it fits within the zoning,” they told Pique at the time.

“So how they can just shoot it down like that, I don’t know. It did sound to me like the decisions were already made.”

So, even if you follow all the rules and do everything by the book, you could still be subject to the personal whims of mayor and council. At least in the past.

If Whistler’s new Housing Action Plan is any indication, the resort will soon revisit the program on a broader scale—but we’re a long way out from specifics.

“The way we’re looking at it is to offer choice to homeowners and expand the range of opportunities. So hopefully there will be uptake,” said director of planning Mike Kirkegaard at the May 16 meeting.

“We know businesses have interest in properties, we know that homeowners under certain circumstances would be interested in a second suite or a subdivision of their suite.”

As for the program’s limited uptake to date, Kirkegaard attributed it to covenant restrictions on things like resale and rental prices.

“We want to be able to reduce the impediments to the uptake, but at the same time we’re not looking at creating new units for people to come up for the weekend and go skiing, we’re looking to create units for employee housing,” he said.

Lost in the mix is a pledge from the provincial government last month to impose provincewide zoning regulations to allow for the densification of single-family home neighbourhoods.

At this point, the specifics of that legislation—and if it will include Whistler—also remain unclear.

Whistler’s municipal staff plan to begin work on a new infill program for the resort right away, “and we’ll just have to see what is taking place at the provincial level, and how widely applicable that may be, and make sure that we’re not marching down a path that might just be superceded by something that the provincial government would be doing,” Kirkegaard said.

Whistlerites will have plenty of chances to weigh in on the new housing plan and its various initiatives, including specific community engagement opportunities around the new infill program, the rezoning at 4500 Northlands, and a new long-term housing strategy—an aspect of the plan Mayor Jack Crompton said will “provide great insights on what is working and what can be improved.

“That said, we can’t afford to hold off action until the strategy is done,” Crompton told Pique.

“On housing, it’s planning and action now and in parallel.”