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Council fires back at Zen

Two weeks after land owner signals his intention to develop, municipality moves to down-zone The clock is ticking on John Zen’s trailer park zoning, and his property will turn into an environmentally-protected pumpkin by Monday – if he does

Two weeks after land owner signals his intention to develop, municipality moves to down-zone

The clock is ticking on John Zen’s trailer park zoning, and his property will turn into an environmentally-protected pumpkin by Monday – if he doesn’t submit an application to develop the trailer park first.

For 22 years Zen has owned the Alpha Creek lands, 111 acres across the highway from Spring Creek. The property is made up of four parcels; three zoned RR1 and one, the largest and most environmentally sensitive, was zoned for a recreational vehicle park back in 1981.

On Monday, Whistler council took the extraordinary step of recommending to staff Zen’s Lot 3 be rezoned to a new Protected Area Network designation, eliminating nearly all currently permitted uses. The only permitted development would be a nature conservation park, unsheltered eco-tourism-based uses or other nature-based programs.

Following the formal recommendation to staff, which passed by a 4-1 vote, Zen has seven days to submit a development permit or lose the development rights that go with the trailer park zoning.

Kristi Wells was the one member of council to speak against the down-zoning recommendation Monday.

"The land owner is obviously frustrated and this is a reaction to his letter," Wells said. "We can do this under the Municipal Act, but we’ve never done it before. It’s unprecedented to single out one land owner."

Wells noted the down-zoning recommendation was a late addition to council’s agenda Monday and Zen was not notified about the item beforehand.

"This is going to erode trust (in the municipality). There’s been a lack of transparency. A legal case is inevitable," Wells said.

Councillors Ken Melamed and Nick Davies disagreed.

"The municipality has behaved honourably and with integrity," Melamed said. "There’s nothing devious or backhanded about this. The owner’s response to our offer to buy his land was to come forward with a development permit application.

"We’ve taken the high road. This is in the community’s best interest."

Davies said he was concerned with language like "erosion of trust" and "lack of transparency."

"When we deal with proposals that are unreasonable and deal with them effectively… there is no lack of transparency."

Zen has presented several proposals for his property to the municipality over the years. Last year he approached the municipality again, asked what it was looking for and came up with a proposal that included 242 bed units of market housing and 820 employee bed units, over his four parcels. He also offered to dedicate 67 per cent of his property, including most of the environmentally sensitive areas, to the municipality.

The municipal planning department spent some time on the proposal, looking at where on the site development would be most suitable. But in the middle of that process, Wells says, there was a strong undercurrent within both council and municipal staff that the whole area should be protected.

"There were concerns about the views as people enter Whistler," Wells said.

The municipality offered Zen development rights on other pieces of land, had an appraisal of his property done, and eventually made an offer to buy his land.

"But he clearly wasn’t interested in selling his land," Wells said. "And he does have the right to say ‘no, thank you’."

Two weeks ago Zen put forward an application to develop a trophy home on one of his three RR1-zoned parcels. He also indicated he would develop large homes on the other two RR1 properties and the trailer park on Lot 3. At that time, after municipal staff advised council that there was little it could do to completely halt development on the properties, a building permit for the first RR1 parcel was issued.

Council’s decision this week to recommend staff prepare bylaws to down-zone Zen’s property follows a precedent-setting case in North Vancouver last year. There the local government down-zoned a property for purposes of environmental preservation, and the Supreme Court upheld the zoning change.

Wells isn’t in favour of a trailer park for Lot 3 – and says Zen isn’t either – but feels the municipality owes him some right of economic return on his property.

"I’ve never met the owner of the land, but he’s told us he’s not interested in making a deal for some other property, he wants to do something on his land," Wells said. "He’s waiting, doing his due diligence, negotiating in good faith and in the meantime we’ve reduced what he can do with his RR1 property."

First Zen signalled his intention to develop his lands, this week council struck back.

"I’m having trouble really making sense of this whole strategy," Wells said. "There’s just a lot better ways to do it.

"This is a lose-lose situation. If he submits something within the seven days we are obliged to start processing it."