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Nita Lake proposal goes to public meeting despite concerns

Council voted 4-2 to move a multi-million dollar development proposal forward to the next step at Monday’s council meeting.

Council voted 4-2 to move a multi-million dollar development proposal forward to the next step at Monday’s council meeting.

The development proposal, at the end of Lake Placid Road in Creekside will now be the subject of a public information meeting, despite many concerns councillors raised about the project.

"It’s getting harder and harder to say no," Coucillor Ken Melamed said with a wry smile.

While Melamed praised the presentation and consultation the developers have done, he asked fellow councillors: "Are we or are we not addicted to the dollars these developments are offering?"

His question came on the heels of a presentation by the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation that calls for a five-star hotel, a $7.5 million train station, and 11 estate homes on 23 acres of adjoining land near the shores of Nita Lake. The houses would average 3,500 square feet.

In return for the 214 necessary bed units to develop this area, the proponents presented two options to council, asking that they be allowed to take these options to the public for consultation.

Either they spend $5.2 million to buy sensitive wetlands north of Function Junction from John Zen, transfer the bed units from that land to the Creekside development and donate the wetlands back to the municipality to be preserved in perpetuity, or, they ask council to create new bed units in return for $6.5 million in community cash benefits, namely money for the library/museum capital campaign and to pay off the Millennium Place building debt.

With either option developer John Haibeck says there are enormous community benefits for Whistler and he was pleased with council’s vote to take it to the public for consultation.

"I’m very happy with council’s decision," he said the following day.

In addition to the community cash benefits or the preserved wetlands, Haibeck points to other benefits stemming from the Nita Lake development package.

Among other things there’s a revamped rail station that could boost tourism to Whistler, a $1 million donation toward surgical facilities at the Whistler Health Care Centre, and a 100-bed employee housing complex that would house almost twice the number of employees who will work in the final development.

But Melamed likened the proposed million dollar amenities to carrots dangling before the municipality.

"We’ve upped the ante every time," he said.

"I’m very worried what will be the next community amenity... that is hung out there."

Melamed’s concern with the Nita Lake proposal is that multi-million dollar developments with "trophy homes" and upscale hotels are increasing real estate values in Whistler and ultimately leading to the gentrification of the resort.

Melamed said this type of "Apsenization" flies in the face of one of the major concerns in the community – affordability.

He did not support moving the project forward for public consultation.

"We’re busy enough right now. Let’s drop this off the table."

But three other councillors and the mayor voted in favour of seeing the project go to the next step.

"(Creekside) deserves to have a look at this," said Councillor Ted Milner.

The developers focused their attention on a 1991 municipal document called Whistler Creek Study – A Growth Strategy, which called for a commercial anchor at the west end of Lake Placid Road.

This summer the municipality finally began fixing up the road after years of promises but little action.

"It would be a shame to pave (the road) to nowhere," said Milner.

The 1991 study also called for increased commercial activity along the road, and recognition of the historical importance of the neighbourhood as the original ski base for Whistler.

The developers say the proposed 80-room lodge and train station anchored at the end of the road falls directly in line with that 1991 Creekside vision.

Melamed dismissed the study an outdated plan.

Over the course of the past 10 years many things have changed in Creekside, specifically Intrawest’s commercial development of Franz’s Trail on the other side of Highway 99.

"Intrawest has usurped the vision for Lake Placid Road," Melamed said.

"(We) already have a substantial commercial zone."

He said the old growth strategy for Creekside needs to be revisited.

Councillor Stephanie Sloan who also voted against the development moving ahead to the next step, said she was concerned with the size of what was proposed on the three acre parcel.

She said a train station with commercial space and 80-room lodge was just too big to cram into that space and she would prefer to see the project scaled down in size.

Like Melamed Sloan also raised concerns about the bed units.

The 242 bed units on the Zen wetlands are for a trailer park. Sloan argued RV bed units are not the same as commercial or single family bed units.

"It’s not comparing apples to apples," said Sloan of the two types of bed units.

There was also concern about getting the bed units by giving money to the library/museum capital fund – money that was expected to be raised within the community.

"This is not a way of fundraising," said Councillor Kristi Wells.

Despite the objections and concerns raised at Monday’s meeting, Councillors Wells, Milner, Nick Davies and Mayor Hugh O’Reilly all gave the go ahead to let the public examine what the Nita Lake Lodge developers propose. Sloan and Melamed voted against the project going to the public. Councillor Dave Kirk was not at the meeting.

"The purpose of this report and recommendation is to find out what the public has to say," said Davies.

Davies also said the project was big enough that it probably would not come back before the current council.

"It will take a lot more thought that will certainly take us beyond the election (in November)," he said.

Councillors Milner and Kristi Wells echoed this sentiment.

When it became clear that the project would move ahead, Melamed said it might be good to see what kind of dialogue the development would stimulate especially as Whistler grapples with forging a comprehensive sustainability plan.

"We don’t have a very clear strategy (for affordability)," he said.

"It’s a nebulous topic out there."

The proposal is a live example of addressing sustainability and affordability in the community he said, adding that the municipality must start addressing the trends that are making affordability tougher to deal with.

"I’m not prepared to give up," he said.

To date the developers have spoken to a number of groups in the community about their plans for Creekside.

There will be more open houses on the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation’s development in the following weeks.