Battle over front desk lands owners, property managers in court 

The Aspens strife is a worst case scenario

There is war being waged at The Aspens, a 223-unit condo-hotel on the Benchlands, and it seems the only resolution will be to find justice in the B.C. Supreme Court.

"It is very upsetting," said Rob O’Neill, chairman and co-owner of the Whistler Lodging Company which represents some of the unit owners in the complex and mans the hotel front desk by the grace of an injunction. "Things are very hostile."

"We are in the process of getting our building back from the O’Neills," said The Aspens strata council chair, Craig Friday.

The battle on the Benchlands is centred around control of the hotel’s front desk. This kind of conflict is not entirely unique to The Aspens. Other condo hotel stratas and property managers in Whistler have fought over control of front desks in the past and they are doing it now. But, in a resort full of stratified hotels — some with up to 15 property managers — the situation at The Aspens is a worst case scenario.

It is symbolic of what can go wrong when relationships sour.

"I don’t perceive that this will go away without a lot of lawyers making a lot of money," said realtor and Whistler Real Estate owner, Pat Kelly.

Things at The Aspens came to a head last summer when the Whistler Lodging Company — then known as Powder Resort Properties — lost the front desk lease and filed a law suit against The Aspen owners; strata council chair Craig Friday; strata council vice-chair Andrew Brown; strata council member Martin Sprenkles, Whistler Retreats owner Leon Renfro and two of his companies, one of which was set up to manage suites in The Aspens.

This suit was filed against a backdrop of other litigation involving the strata council including Summit Strata Management, Intrawest and Pomar Building Projects.

And, things have become very bitter and very personal.

"The story is the multitude of litigation that is going on at the Aspens," said O’Neill. "The circumstances have turned out to be highly litigious. We believe that it is the strata chairman’s approach to resolving issues that has generated all these actions."

O’Neill said many owners are being taken hostage in the process.

Friday has a different perspective. "Basically O’Neill has sued the owners at The Aspens for possession of the front desk which is totally wrong," said Friday. "He doesn’t own the building. He is just the rental manager in the building. He has no rights to the front desk at all."

Court documents show that the Whistler Lodging Company — then Powder — filed suit against the owners on June 26, 2000 but the case has yet to go to trial.

The statement of claim indicates that Powder would have had its lease of the front desk automatically renewed for another three years if it had managed to renew enough of its rental management contracts with the individual unit owners. Powder claims that if the strata council hadn’t conspired against the company, it would have secured sufficient contracts.

For the previous five years Powder had management contracts with 174 of the 223 owners. However, Powder lost about 90 owners when the contracts came up for renewal last summer. This meant it did not have enough to hold on to the front desk lease which subsequently expired June 30, 2000.

Powder alleges in its statement of claim that it lost the contracts because Friday, Brown, Sprenkles and Renfro "engaged in an unlawful agreement and fraudulent scheme to injure Powder and its reputation" and interfered with Powder’s rental management contracts.

Their goal, alleges Powder’s legal counsel, was to deliver the front desk and Powder’s contracts to Renfro and his new property management company — Aspens on Blackcomb Resort. Renfro also owns Whistler Retreats.

Aspens on Blackcomb did indeed manage to sign up many of Powder’s clients. "They are claiming Craig Friday and the strata council wrongfully spoke to owners persuading them not to re-sign with Powder," said Renfro. "And they are claiming the bidding process was unfair when (the front desk lease) went to tender."

In its statement of claim, Powder maintains the tendering process was a "sham" and that it gave Aspens on Blackcomb an unfair advantage.

Renfro, however, said owners defected from Powder to his new company because he made a good, solid presentation. "The owners felt confident that we could provide a more personalized service and provide strong returns and attention to their investment," noted Renfro. "Those are some the advantages of being with a smaller company." He said he would have signed even more clients if he had access to the front desk.

Both Powder and Aspens on Blackcomb claim they each have signed contracts with "more than 70" owners. That would leave the remaining 140 owners split between another estimated 13 rental management companies.

Supreme Court judge Mary Humphries ruled on June 30, 2000 that there was sufficient reason to go to trial. "I am satisfied that there is a serious issue to be tried, at lease in respect of the lease tender process," reads her judgement. O’Neill expects a court date will be set in July probably for two years from now.

In the meantime, however, Humphries granted Powder an injunction that allows the company to remain at the front desk until the lease matter is resolved, either by a 75 per cent majority vote or through the courts.

She felt this would offer the least disruption to owners and protect the Radisson franchise which Powder said was under threat if it was removed from the front desk.

Under the Strata Act, at least 75 per cent of a quorum needs to vote in favour of one company to man their common front desk. In a divided building like The Aspens, that is unlikely and it looks like Powder, which represents only about 70 owners, will remain front desk manager by the grace of the injunction until the case is tried.

In the meantime, the strata council proposed offering licences to both Aspens on Blackcomb and Powder to jointly operate the front desk on the condition that both companies agree to check in guests for all the other rental management companies in the building at no charge.

Powder, however, argued such an arrangement would be contrary to the existing court order and it said it would lose its Radisson franchise under those circumstances..

The franchise has, however, since been dissolved and Powder has removed the phone system from suites it does not represent.

Powder has also ceased providing the free-check in it promised to guests of Aspens on Blackcomb.

The strata council sought to overturn the injunction and have the case dismissed in February this year, based on some of these changes. However, last month B.C. Supreme Court justice Frank Cole ruled that the changes have not seriously affected order at The Aspens and dismissed the application.

O’Neill said he has now received notice that the strata council will again seek to throw out the injunction. "They are spending huge amounts of legal fees … unfortunately we believe the damages continue."

O’Neill said two weeks ago he offered to negotiate a settlement with owners. "They rejected our offer so we are proceeding ahead," he said.

"From our perspective, a third of the owners are very happy. They have superior management through our company. We have got good revenues and we are stable and running the desk and trying, under difficult circumstances, to give good service to our owners," noted O’Neill.

"Another third of the owners feel disenfranchised. They are the customers of Aspens on Blackcomb. The strata has been providing them space in cubby holes and meeting rooms and various other places to do their job," said O’Neill. "The other third are not with either of us. You have a strata council that doesn’t represent all the owners. It is such a complicated issue and I believe a great many owners have just tuned out."

When the Whistler Lodging Company recently terminated the Radisson franchise, it renamed the arm of its company that manages suites in the property, The Aspens on Blackcomb by the Whistler Lodging Company.

O’Neill concedes this is creating further confusion for the guests but he said "The Aspens on Blackcomb" is the official name of the property. "The guy (Renfro) went and registered his company name as that … if the owners were really thinking, they might have done something to protect themselves."

O’Neill expects a court date will be set in July.

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