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Houghton rezoning sparks debate

Glenn and Larry Houghton will be allowed to build 5,000 square foot homes at Taluswood, in exchange for a $300,000 donation, but what that means to the affordability, sustainability and credibility of Whistler was the focus of an intense debate Monda

Glenn and Larry Houghton will be allowed to build 5,000 square foot homes at Taluswood, in exchange for a $300,000 donation, but what that means to the affordability, sustainability and credibility of Whistler was the focus of an intense debate Monday.

Whistler council voted 4-2 to give the Houghtons’ rezoning application third reading, with Mayor Hugh O’Reilly also supporting the move. But opposition from Councillors Ken Melamed and Dave Kirk generated a 45-minute debate about the direction Whistler is going, particularly in relation to large homes. That led to a separate motion, passed unanimously, that the municipality develop a policy to direct the tax revenue from homes over 3,500 square feet toward making Whistler more affordable.

By one estimate there are more than 200 lots or parcels in Whistler where homes greater than 3,500 square feet could be built. In addition to areas such as The Peaks and Horstman Estates, which are specifically zoned for large houses, there are more than 80 sites on RR1 zoned property.

Melamed started Monday’s debate by saying large homes run contrary to key principles in the municipality’s Vision 2002 document: sustainability and affordability. He cited American resorts where property values have skyrocketed as trophy homes got bigger and bigger. In some towns schools have closed because families could no longer afford to live there.

"Affordability is difficult to address but one course of action is to not hasten an increase in property taxes," Melamed said.

The Houghtons sought to increase the size of the houses allowed on their two lots, from 3,500 square feet to 5,000, through a provision in the Local Government Act that allows municipalities to provide bonus densities in return for community amenities. The Houghtons will provide a $300,000 cash amenity; $250,000 to the future Spring Creek day care and $50,000 to Millennium Place.

"The irony," Melamed said, "is day cares may become redundant if we allow this continued gentrification."

Large homes also run counter to the Natural Step program Whistler is about to adopt, Melamed argued. Among the principles advocated by the Natural Step is that resources be used fairly and equitably.

"Credibility is an issue for us. This rezoning challenges the goals of or own Vision document," Melamed said.

Councillor Nick Davies countered that gentrification was not an issue in this case because the property is in a new neighbourhood and not displacing anyone. He also suggested that the two Houghton homes would not have an impact on the average value of homes in Whistler as the real estate market is segregated into several categories.

"The danger here is that we are attempting to engage in social engineering," Davies said. "In my view that’s what (Melamed’s) argument is. Who are we to say what standard of living people should have?"

Councillor Dave Kirk also opposed third reading but for different reasons.

"This is the first time this type of application has come to council under this (Local Government Act) legislation," Kirk said. "I’m not sure the value we’re receiving in this application is appropriate and we don’t have ground rules. I suggest we need that discussion before dealing with this."

Kirk said he had been advised by members of the Urban Development Institute and local real estate agents that Whistler was "on a very slippery slope" if it approves the Houghtons’ application before establishing ground rules.

Kirk tried several times to get discussion going on his point but the closest he came was Councillor Kristi Wells’ response.

"This is not a new process, it’s allowed under the Local Government Act," Wells said. "We have almost a shopping list (of community amenities) in the OCP. Even taking cash is not new."

Wells cited council’s adoption of Intrawest’s Whistler South plan which also included a cash contribution to the Spring Creek day care.

Wells also pointed out the Vision document states Whistler will celebrate the diversity of its people. "It’s a constant balance – the resort, the community, affordability, income. I don’t think this particular rezoning threatens any of our principles," Wells said. "We’ve countered a lot of the issues Vail and Aspen have faced already."

What Whistler hasn’t addressed, councillors agreed, was potential problems of affordability and gentrification brought about by tear-downs and lot consolidation. Wells suggested the municipality should also look at increasing the number of bed units large homes count for and consider an employee works and services charge on large homes.

Councillors Ted Milner and Stephanie Sloan also supported the rezoning application, which prompted Melamed to say he was getting a "feeling of abandonment" from council.

"If we continue down this path families like mine won’t be able to live here," Melamed said. "The value of my home has no value if I can’t afford to live in it.

"People are leaving town – if you don’t see it you’re not looking."

Melamed then apologized to community members who support his position on large homes.

"I apologize because I couldn’t find the arguments to convince other council members."

O’Reilly attempted to bridge the gap by saying all council members were trying to achieve the same outcome, they were just interpreting things differently.

"The underlying problem is we have put a cap on development," O’Reilly said.

"One of the key elements is the redistribution of wealth, but you have to have wealth first. These (houses) give us money to distribute."

O’Reilly said to Melamed: "You have to take some consolation in how far this discussion has come, from 10 years ago, even from five years ago. We are listening."

Melamed agreed and later said he found some consolation in the motion to use taxes from large homes to affect affordability.