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New Callaghan adventure lodge under fire

Proposal calls into question long term planning for the valley

Calling it “an assault on our community,” Whistler council unanimously rejected an application for a large five star adventure lodge in the Callaghan Valley.

“If this thing goes ahead there’s a precedent set up there in the Callaghan that the Callaghan is wide open for business,” said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, who has long had the future of that valley on his mind.

“We have a responsibility to defend the business people, the investors and everybody in our own community. And this is an assault on our community.”

But the lodge proponent, Shawn Wilson, owner of Blackcomb Snowmobile and Whistler ATV, vowed to keep moving forward despite Whistler council’s opposition.

His 55,000 square foot lodge proposal (roughly twice the size of the IGA Marketplace) lies just outside Whistler’s boundaries and, as such, council does not have ultimate authority over approval of the development. That rests with the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

“It’s definitely not going to stop me,” said Wilson, who was disappointed upon learning of council’s position Tuesday morning. “I’m still going to keep moving forward with it.

“It’s not going to be a competing thing against Whistler. It’s just going to be an enhancement of the valley.”

Council had a different opinion, particularly in light of an earlier presentation at Monday’s council meeting from Tourism Whistler President Barrett Fisher.

In an update about the organization Fisher told council that Whistler’s accommodation has a year-round occupancy rate of 54 per cent — a rate she said is not sustainable.

Zeidler seized on that statistic.

“We have so many challenges in this community,” he said.

“Like we need a bunch more accommodation. Like we need more retail. I don’t think so.”

Council was unanimous in its decision to support staff in writing a letter to the Adventure Tourism Branch of the Ministry of Tourism, Sport and the Arts (MOTSA) in opposition to the referral.

Its position is similar to that of other fringe development proposals in recent years, most notably the Wedge housing development on the northern boundary.

“I think the gold rush to our boundaries continues at pace,” said Councillor Ralph Forsyth.

It’s one of the reasons Whistler negotiated, through the Olympics, to have its municipal boundary expanded. The province has yet to officially approve that expansion but the southern expansion does not advance as far into the Callaghan as originally proposed.

“I think this is a pretty clear example for the rationale Whistler had in asking for a larger area,” said Mayor Ken Melamed at Monday’s meeting.

He suggested staff revisit that southern boundary expansion to include the area of the proposed lodge.

But Brad Sills, one of the owners of Callaghan Country, which has operated a lodge in the Callaghan for years, doesn’t think saying “no” unilaterally to development in the area is the answer.

“Somebody better get on and figure out what are the ramifications to Whistler and I don’t believe that just saying no is the answer because you just stall by doing that,” said Sills this week.

“Let’s be proactive here and figure out what’s a win/win situation. That’s what I would advocate.”

The $25 million High Point Lodge development proposal spans three phases. The first phase is now making its way through the SLRD. It would allow Blackcomb Snowmobile to relocate its base camp deeper into the valley — a move that was initially prompted by the decision to locate the $119 million 2010 Nordic venue in the Callaghan Valley.

The second phase of the development calls for the 55,000 square foot lodge, including spa facilities and 24 units of roughly 1,000 square feet each. The lodge includes three heli-pads to accommodate heli-skiing.

The third phase would see the development of individual cabins of roughly 1,000 square feet each.

The facility is proposed to be located right beside the new $16 million highway which runs into the Callaghan Valley directly to the Nordic centre.   It will be just five kilometers from the Olympic development, which will be a cross-country skiing legacy after the Games.

The second and third phase of the development was originally anticipated to take place before 2010 but Wilson said that has been revised to post-Games.

“It’s just been a dream that I’ve always wanted to do,” said Wilson, who has owned and operated Blackcomb Snowmobile for 17 years.

“It’s something I can see that the Callaghan Valley needs.”

There is some debate, however, on what the Callaghan Valley needs.

Sills, who operates Callaghan Country, has been involved in several planning processes.

“There’s literally a room full of studies on the Callaghan Valley,” he said this week. “The Callaghan Valley, in terms of recreation, has been the most studied area anywhere in the province.”

And yet, he said, there is no consensus on what should happen there, if anything.

He has received approval from the SLRD to build another lodge in the backcountry totaling 8,000 square feet. It is designed to operate in concert with the existing lodge, which is the same size, to offer what is commonly called “hut to hut” cross country skiing.

His reaction to the latest proposal is: “That’s big.”

But he doesn’t think it will impact his business.

What is impacting his business, he said, is the uncertainty of the future of the Callaghan. It’s one of the reasons the partners in Callaghan Country have listed the company for sale at $5.9 million.

In the heart of this wilderness is the Olympic Nordic venue, which has changed the landscape considerably.

“It’s kind of like David and Goliath right now,” said Sills. “We’ve got this publicly funded monster next to us. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve been really helpful to us and they’re trying to accommodate us but at the end of the day, they can build a 10,000 square foot day lodge with all the amenities and staff it and I’ve got to compete against that.”

Another factor playing a major role in the future of the Callaghan is First Nations interests.

Earlier this year the province approved a submission from Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations to build an 18-hole golf course in the valley.

Whistler council around that time rejected any notion by the two nations to build housing in the area, stating at the time that it was not consistent with its long-term plan.

The First Nations withdrew that part of their application.

But the golf course proposal, in addition to the Blackcomb Snowmobile proposal, shows the interest in the area, which lies just on Whistler’s southern boundary.

The SLRD’s director of planning and development, Steven Olmstead, confirmed staff has sent a response to the provincial government with similar comments to Whistler’s.

The lodge is a significant rezoning proposal for the SLRD.

“We’d be wanting to evaluate and consider something like that in the context of some kind of planning framework for the Callaghan, not just an ad hoc arrangement,” said Olmstead.

He pointed to an earlier SLRD decision surrounding the Nordic centre where the regional district pulled all commercial development from the proposal that was not associated with the Olympic venue. Among other things, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games was proposing an RV/campground, tubing park and an overnight lodge to go along with the venue.

“The bottom line for us really with the Blackcomb Snowmobile proposal wasn’t necessarily passing judgment on the application one way or the other, other than to say ‘look we believe we went down this road before with the venue for the Olympic site with some commercial development there, and as a result of that public hearing, we took all that commercial development out,’” said Olmstead. “For something of this scale, it just needs to be part of that overall context.”

He said SLRD staff would be meeting with provincial representatives from MOTSA to discuss this application and others that may in the pipeline.

“If they’re anticipating an upsurge in activity, we’d certainly like to know about it,” said Olmstead.

MOTSA officials did not return phone calls before deadline Wednesday.

In addition to sending its letter of opposition to the proposal, Councillor Forsyth suggested the mayor call the minister and ask exactly what the province’s plans are for the Callaghan.