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emerald forest deal

By Bob Barnett "I know this is a bitter pill for the community to swallow, but there is an opportunity now to begin building new policies so a deal like this never has to be made again.

By Bob Barnett "I know this is a bitter pill for the community to swallow, but there is an opportunity now to begin building new policies so a deal like this never has to be made again." That was part of Councillor Ken Melamed’s assessment of the deal which will increase Whistler’s bed unit cap but preserve the Emerald Forest in its entirety. Whistler councillors Monday voted 6-1 in favour of the three-way deal with Intrawest and Decigon which will see the municipality pay Intrawest $1 million and provide 476 "new" bed units for a hotel on Lot 5 of the Blackcomb Benchlands. Intrawest will purchase the 139-acre Emerald Forest area from the Decigon group for an undisclosed price and transfer the lands to a trust administered by the municipality. The controversial deal has divided the Whistler community since it was first introduced on Aug. 9. Virtually everyone was in favour of preserving the Emerald Forest area, but many felt exceeding the bed unit cap was not the way to achieve that goal. Many Benchlands property owners also opposed the deal because of the increased density the additional hotel will bring to their area. Some Benchlands property owners are considering legal challenges. Nearly six hours of public hearings were held over two nights before councillors Monday gave third reading to a series of bylaws which will push the deal forward. Before voting council members spent an hour outlining their positions. "I believe the acquisition of the Emerald Forest is one of the most significant and important steps taken by the municipality in years," said Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who was instrumental in pushing for preservation of the entire Emerald Forest area. "I truly have no doubt that in years to come people will look back and say this decision was the right one." Wilhelm-Morden outlined the process that led to the deal before discussing the price paid by the municipality. "I would have preferred we purchase this land with dollars rather than bed units, I said that in the last election and argued that strenuously but wasn’t able to convince the majority of council. "The opportunity to purchase or expropriate is now past." But Councillor Ted Milner voted against the deal because he believes the price is too high. "The original deal (worked out between the previous council and Decigon) was for 200 bed units and dedication of most of the land," Milner said. "This council wanted to preserve all of the land and forced them to take 500 bed units." Milner said the dollar value of bed units is about $14,000 each. At that rate the municipality is paying $1 million in cash and $7 million in bed units. "My point of view is that’s about $4 million too much," Milner said. Milner pointed out that all council members agreed prior to the last election not to trade bed units and to hold to the cap. "This is not fair to the entire town," Milner said. "The game of bed unit transfers is a game of ‘gotcha’ and the Benchlands got it." Milner was also critical of the way the deal was negotiated and evolved in in-camera sessions over the last couple of years. "There was a huge dedication of time and expense, and no other options were presented. "I don’t think this is too late for a referendum and I don’t think it meets the four criteria for going over the cap." Melamed said he shared concerns about exceeding the development cap, "but sitting in this chair one is forced to become a pragmatist. "This is not necessarily the best deal, but it’s the only deal. We have to do it now." Councillor Dave Kirk said he believed strongly in the bed unit cap, but noted this is not the first time it has been changed. "It’s pretty obvious the bed unit cap is dynamic, as is politics and as is the community," Kirk said. "I have to wonder whether the bed unit cap is cast (in stone), but I know it will have a presence, it will be a guide. "I believe strongly in what we’re doing because we’re saving something that can’t be replaced," Kirk concluded. In addition to the bylaws which will allow the hotel development on Lot 5, bylaws permitting a hotel on Lot E were also given third reading Monday. Intrawest has agreed to reduce the height of the Lot E hotel, from 10 storeys to nine storeys. The 34 bed units removed from the hotel could be incorporated into the hotel on Lot 5. Also since the public hearing concluded, Intrawest has agreed to pay for any upgrade of the municipal sewer necessitated by the development of hotels on Lots 5 and Lot E on the Benchlands. The two hotels may increase sewer volumes beyond the preferred capacity of some sections of the sewer line. A preliminary estimate of the cost of upgrading those sections was pegged at $130,000. Intrawest will also provide four replacement tennis courts for the four on Lot 5 that will be lost through development. Originally the company only planned to replace three tennis courts. Work could begin on the "landmark" hotel on Lot E as early as next summer. Work on the Lot 5 hotel won’t begin for at least a couple of years.