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RGS impasse could wrap up June 8

Arbitrator will rule on dispute involving local autonomy in land-use decisions

The timeline has been set for a resolution to the impasse over the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS).

The controversial strategy that has divided a corridor is being sent to binding arbitration after a non-binding resolution process failed to bring about an agreement. The arbitration process began April 6 and is slated to last 63 days, with the arbitrator rendering a decision by June 8, according to a document from B.C.'s Ministry of Community Development.

The Regional Growth Strategy is a policy framework that aims to create a "common direction" for the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) and its member municipalities, which include Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton.

The strategy is aimed at preventing urban and rural sprawl; creating compact, mixed-use communities; and walkable communities with a variety of low-impact options for transportation.

Glenn Sigurdson, an adjunct professor in the Learning Strategies Group at Simon Fraser University's business school, has been selected as the arbitrator. Sigurdson will take submissions from the SLRD and affected local governments including Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton.

He'll also take submissions from any other parties that the SLRD and participating municipalities permit to take part in the process. It's unclear at this point whether all those parties will actually make submissions to the arbitrator.

At issue in the dispute is the impact that the strategy will have on local autonomy in land-use decisions. The strategy has been accepted by all governments in the SLRD except for the District of Squamish, which chose not to accept it at a council meeting in November of 2008.

Squamish rejected it over various concerns, primarily to do with land use. The district worries that amendments to its Official Community Plan would require the approval of all governments in the SLRD as well as adjacent regional districts if they're considered major amendments by the board.

Though it agrees with the spirit of the strategy, the district wants a policy framework that doesn't give what it sees as a veto to other governments.

"We are saying that this idea of making changes within our municipal boundaries or Whistler's boundaries or Pemberton's requiring the consent of all the parties to that agreement is onerous," Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner said in an interview.

"In fact, it's an infringement on democratic principles. We believe land use decisions in a municipality should be made by the people who elected the councils to make those decisions."

Major amendments are not specifically defined in the Local Government Act, the provincial legislation governing Regional Growth Strategies.

Section 857 of the Act states that, prior to adoption, a RGS must be sent to the councils of each municipality covered by the strategy, as well as the board of each regional district that's adjacent to the area the strategy applies to. Minor amendments can be dealt through a specified process but major ones could likely be put through the same process required to adopt a strategy to begin with.

Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed said that the resort community will submit a position to the arbitrator that supports the existing growth strategy, along with the existing process for major amendments.

"We're going to arbitration to reconcile the difference that Squamish and the rest of the district has," he said.