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White Gold beautification gets go-ahead from council

Massive, previously unknown costs to some homeowners prompts pushback
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A project to bury utility lines in White Gold is moving ahead—but not without opposition. Photo by Braden Dupuis

A project to bury the utility lines in Whistler’s White Gold neighbourhood is moving ahead after council voted to pursue next steps at its Nov. 3 meeting—but it could have drastic financial impacts for some homeowners, who say the full personal costs were not initially made clear.

Depending on the age of their homes and the complexity of their properties, owners could be on the hook for up to $22,500 for the upgrade, not counting an annual tax increase needed to cover the project costs. 

“It’s really sad,” said Monique Wilberg, who built a home in White Gold 18 years ago.

“There are people who volunteer in the community, who have raised their kids here, who contribute on a regular basis … and they’re literally scratching their heads, thinking, ‘what?’”

But council’s decision—a 5-1 vote, with only Councillor Jen Ford dissenting—was made more difficult by the fact the project was initiated by the neighbourhood itself.

Under Section 212 of the Community Charter, homeowners may petition a municipality for a “local service area,” with the costs being recovered via an add-on to annual property taxes over a number of years.

On Sept. 5, 2019, council received a letter from Toni Metcalf, speaking as a resident of the neighbourhood (Metcalf is also the RMOW’s economic development coordinator—she recused herself from the Nov. 3 discussion), expressing the interest of White Gold residents to initiate a formal petition process for the work.

Of 160 total affected properties, 93 voted in favour of the project, said capital projects manager Tammy Shore at the Nov. 3 meeting.

But some residents say the individual costs weren’t known upfront; some have even rescinded their support.

According to Ian Reith, a 19-year resident of the neighbourhood who voted against the petition from the start, there was “never” any indication those costs might reach $22,000 during the petition process.

While Reith doesn’t know what the project will cost him yet, he said burying the power lines will mean digging under his house to connect to where the fuse box is.

“I know that’s going to be pricey. I just can’t imagine anybody burrowing under my house to do that is going to be cheap,” he said with a laugh.

While the costs are prohibitive, Reith’s other “big concern” is what the process has done to the neighbourhood he’s called home for nearly two decades. 

“It seems to have fractured it. It’s the people who were in favour of it, and anybody who expressed any negatives sort of got shunned,” he said.

“There’s no sympathy. It was just like, ‘Oh well,’ and off they go, and all’s they needed was their 50-per-cent majority.”

Though some residents are also taking issue with the fact that the petition deadline was extended from Sept. 15 to Oct. 9 to allow foreign owners more time to respond after COVID-19 caused mail delays, the entire process was independently verified by corporate officer Brooke Browning, who issued a certificate of sufficency on Oct. 26, Shore said.

Wilburg was one owner who initially voted in favour of the petition before more information became available.

Though her home would likely be on the lower end of the personal cost scale, the added burden to her neighbours—and the fracturing of the neighbourhood—is deeply concerning.

“White Gold is just such a lovely neighbourhood. We could have bought land anywhere when we bought, and we wanted to buy here because of the mix of houses, because they’re not all giant homes,” she said.

“Driving these people out of the community … if you knew some of the people that are in this position, and the work that they do in this community—it’s just super disheartening.”

The project drew a flurry of queries and comments during the public Q and A at the Nov. 3 meeting, including from White Gold resident Donna Green, who voiced support.

The project is about more than beautification, Green said—it’s about safety.

“We’ve had snow come down so that we’ve had wires broken and sparks flying all over the place, so although it may be just a beautification project to some, for us it is a safety issue,” she said. 

“I think what you have now is definitely a majority that is showing a very strong will to understand that this is a very good project for this area. In any kind of voting system you will always have people that may disagree with a particular project.”

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) was awarded a BC Hydro Beautification grant for the project in November 2019, of which it expects it will be able to claim $860,000 to cover applicable expenses. 

Factoring in the grant, the RMOW will need to borrow $4.66 million from the Municipal Finance Authority to fund the project, which White Gold residents will pay back over a 30-year amortization period via their increased tax bills (about $1,500 per year). 

Based on letters received from residents, the RMOW estimates about 16 property owners are opposed to the project. 

Owners were given a four-day window between Oct. 10 and 14 to rescind their support for the petition, Shore said, which one person did.

Though council voiced “agony” over the difficult decision, a pair of resolutions directing staff to proceed passed 5-1.

“It’s fine to say that your home value will go up when you decide to sell, but not everyone wants to sell anytime soon. Some people have no option to sell,” said Ford, the only councillor to vote in opposition, adding that she struggles with the precedent the decision sets.

“There are a lot of properties in this town that can not afford $30,000, which I know sounds like not very much when your home is worth $3 million, but it’s a dangerous precedent, for my comfort,” she said.

But for Mayor Jack Crompton and other members of council, denying a valid petition that followed a legislative process could set a different sort of precedent.

“We have to live with the legislative processes that guide us,” Crompton said after the meeting. 

“When 50 per cent of a community makes a request that they are within their rights to make to council, I think we’re obligated to respond accordingly. Other neighbourhoods and other parts of our community should be able to expect the same kind of predictable response from their local government.”

As for the financial hardship for some owners, Crompton said they have options.

“The idea of tax deferral is one that I think makes more sense than selling your homes. Ultimately those are decisions made by individual homeowners, and I hope they stay,” he said.

“The people in that neighbourhood built this town, and I hope they’ll stay engaged, stay here, and continue to be a part of the community they’ve always been.”

But for the longtime White Gold locals living in older homes, like Reith, those words are likely little comfort.

“I just look at it as something I don’t need, I don’t really care about it, I don’t have the money for, and if I had money to spend on something frivolous, I’d buy an e-bike, or a car that worked,” he said with a laugh.

“Something that I want. Not that somebody else wants.”

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