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Nita Lake development not ‘special’ enough

Council sends Hillman House proposal back to developers

The developers of the Hillman House lands on Nita Lake have been sent back to the drawing board again.

Mayor Ken Melamed’s comment on Tuesday night was that the latest proposal was "fundamentally missing the mark on so many levels."

The plans called for a scaled down lodge, almost half the size as what is allowed on the land, along with small clusters of cabins dotted through the 10-acres just off Alta Lake Road.

It was described to council as "simple living" – a place where families could gather in larger groups with the central lodge offering communal space. The cabins would range in size up to as large as 2,800 square feet.

"This isn’t just another development," said architect Brent Murdoch in his presentation to council, adding that the proposal was something "special."

But it wasn’t special enough for council to move it forward in the rezoning process and instead they asked staff to go back to the developer with their concerns.

"Respectfully I want to know what makes this ‘something special,’" said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, adding that to his mind it looked just like any another TA (Tourist Accommodation) zoned development.

The developer is looking to change the zoning on the land to allow for a modified Phase 1 covenant instead of the already approved Phase II covenant.

Under a Phase 1 covenant the individual owners of each of the cabins could use those cabins as much as they want, while a Phase II covenant only allows owners to stay up to 56 days a year in their unit.

To Mayor Melamed’s mind that makes the development proposal essentially private single-family homes, just like any other tourist accommodation in Whistler and that’s not what council rezoned the property for in 2000.

"It wasn’t an easy decision (to rezone the property)," recalled Melamed who was a councillor at the time. "Here’s a piece of property that’s zoned for one house and… there’s no good rationalization to increase the density on a very beautiful property on a lake without a special benefit to the community."

The special benefit at the time was to create a corporate retreat facility, unlike anything Whistler had in its product offering.

Twenty-five small cabins were proposed around the land, along with a large lodge.

"Council thought that that concept was unique enough and… contributed to diversifying the product mix that it justified increasing the density on this property."

But, after a successful rezoning process, developer Ross Depner could not get the financial backing to support the project. He sold the land, with the zoning for the lodge and cabins, to developers based in Australia.

They first came to council in 2005 with a plan to build seven large single-family homes on the site, zoned for tourist accommodation. Council rejected the development proposal.

The marketplace, however, has changed significantly since council first rezoned the land six years ago.

Nita Lake, Whistler’s smallest lake, did not have the multi-million dollar mansion, the Chateau du Lac, on its shores then, nor did it have the 78-room boutique lodge at its southern end.

The village has changed too.

There is now plenty of village conference space for corporate retreats. And there are many Phase II units in the marketplace all fighting after the same tourist dollars.

This proposal was a way to give the developers more flexibility in their development.

While the cabins were to be privately owned, there would be one management company overseeing the rentals, depending on how many nights would be rented under the modified phase 1 covenant.

They also planned to keep the unique Artist in Residence program on the site, which would allow visiting artists to stay on the site and work in a studio there.

But council wanted more assurances there would be community benefit for the change in zoning.

"To my mind this iteration doesn’t cut it," said Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

Melamed, along with other councillors, asked to see a business plan and a vision for the development Tuesday night, outlining the market and how families or corporate clients would stay there.

"If it’s not going to be a corporate retreat, if that’s not financially viable, what do we do with this?" asked the mayor after Tuesday’s council meeting.

"How do we manage the development potential versus the interests and needs of the developer? That question has been sent back to staff to look for answers."