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Utah company betting on Chipmunk

Proposed ski area near Chilliwack faces first hurdle in next few weeks

It’s so far so good for the proponents of a large scale ski resort in the Chipmunk Ridge area outside of Chilliwack, but some significant hurdles remain before the project wins final approval.

In July, Resorts West, the resort proponent, submitted an expression of interest to develop the area, which borders on the city of Chilliwack. The project would include the construction of one or two trams from the valley to Chipmunk Ridge, accessing a back bowl area surrounded by a series of peaks in the 1,700-1,800 metre range.

Resorts West is based in Utah and has experience building and operating ski resorts, including Deer Valley, Park City and The Canyons.

That proposal has since made the rounds at the provincial government, which has tentatively agreed that there is a potential to build a ski resort in the area. The City of Chilliwack has already expressed its support for the idea, although the approval of the regional district and local Cheam First Nations will also be required.

Whistler-based Brent Harley and Associates, a resort planning and consultant company, is handling the applications for Resorts West while helping to plan the proposed resort. It was also their slope analysis that showed just how much potential the area has for recreation.

According to Brent Harley, there are some significant hurdles remaining for the project before it can go ahead.

At the same time, the province has streamlined the application process through the All Season Resort Policy.

"One thing that’s out there now is a fast-track process, which means that any project that has been identified as having significant merit, the government will do anything in its power to make sure the proposals move swiftly through the approval stages. Early on this was identified as a project where there’s merit," said Harley, who said the initial goal was to have the first phase completed by 2010.

One reason the resort could be fast-tracked is the fact that it literally borders on the boundaries of Chilliwack, with existing roads and facilities to the tram loading area and proposed real estate projects, which fall within Chilliwack city limits.

"Mount Baldy (near Osoyoos), another project we’re working on, is leading the way as far as the fast-track process goes. If it works, it will immediately speed up the development process and approvals process, so (2010) is still a possibility."

One of the first potential hurdles for the Chipmunk project could take place as early as next week, when the province issues a formal request for expressions of interest for resort development in the area. In this phase other resort developers will be able to submit their own concepts for the area.

Projects have been delayed or scuttled during this phase in the past, says Harley.

Another hurdle is the co-operation of the Cheam First Nations. Although the Cheam were staunchly opposed to the project when it was first suggested, that position has softened somewhat after some changes in council and talks with the developers.

"Recent court decisions have shown that this type of project won’t get very far without the approval of First Nations, so it’s better to begin those negotiations as early as possible," said Harley.

"Our first meeting was definitely a challenge, they were against anything we had to say. Subsequent meetings with them have been a little better, they’ve taken a softer stand. That’s not to say that we have their approval, just that they’re at least willing to listen to what we have to say.

"My client’s position has always been that this could be a benefit to First Nations."

In addition to creating jobs and other possible economic benefits, the creation of a resort could save several areas important to the Cheam that are currently slated for logging.

The ridge would be accessed by a tramway. It would also be open in the summer to paragliders, hikers, mountain bikers and other backcountry users. A second tram could be created once the area is completed.

"One of the nice things about this proposal is that so much of it can be completed in phases, it’s not something we have to build all at once," said Harley.

Lift systems will be built on the north side of the ridge to service Mount Mercer, Mount Laughington, and Mount Archibald as new phases are completed. A lodge will also be built.

There is far less vertical than Whistler, with top to bottom runs averaging about 2,000 feet, but in terms of snowfall and terrain it easily rivals any of the Lower Mainland mountains, says Harley. Unlike other proposed resorts, there are no access issues – visitors can almost drive to Chipmunk on the TransCanada Highway.

There will also be a real estate component, potentially consisting of 290 single family homes and 1,200 multi-family units. The real estate falls on Chilliwack land, and would be serviced by city water and sewer systems.

Following the call for other expressions of interest, which includes feedback from different departments and agencies within government, the province can issue an interim agreement with the developer, allowing them to put together a detailed Master Plan. Public open houses and agreements with First Nations and other users are part of this plan, as well as all the necessary paperwork regarding every aspect of the resort development. Without the approval of local communities and the First Nations, it will be difficult for the project to go ahead said Harley.