Concern about First Nations centre prompt public hearing extension 

Residents in the upscale hotel/condos along Blackcomb Way are worried about their westerly views of forested parkland if a First Nations cultural centre forges ahead on the Benchlands.

"Our main opposition is to rezoning parkland in the core of Whistler," said local homeowner Elizabeth Yung at Monday night’s public hearing before council.

Yung owns a condo in Le Chamois on Blackcomb Way. Across the road the municipality is considering rezoning a five-acre parcel of forested land to allow for the development of a 45,000 square foot cultural centre. The centre would celebrate the history and traditions of the area’s First Nations.

"Personally we’re very much in favour of having a First Nations centre... but it might not be an ideal location," said Yung.

The strata chair of Le Chamois, Carroll Nelson, also spoke out about losing the forested land.

"It is parkland for us," she said of the land opposite the Fairmont Chateau Whistler at the corner of Blackcomb Way and the eastern end of Lorimer Road.

"A lot of owners purchased their units with the knowledge that was going to stay that way."

In addition to the handful of homeowners who spoke at the meeting, council was also presented with a thick stack of roughly 50 letters from Blackcomb Way residents expressing concerns. Most of the form letters repeated the same concerns voiced at the public hearing.

Robert Blake of the Glacier Lodge Strata Council said he bought his unit on Blackcomb Way on the assumption that the land across the street would remain a parkland.

"This area is beautiful just the way it is," he wrote in a letter dated April 4.

"It is a perfectly wonderful walk and hiking area with natural beauty, which will be destroyed with the addition of this proposed monstrosity."

But in his initial presentation of the cultural centre to council over one month ago, Bob MacPherson, the RMOW interim general manager of planning and development, said that the site was slated at one time for a townhouse development.

"Kudos to previous councils for not letting that happen," he said.

To ease some of the residents’ concerns about losing the parkland, the centre’s architect also spoke at the public hearing.

"The concept is the building is the gateway to the forest and you keep the forest as a park," said Alfred Waugh, of Waugh + Busby Architects.

"The idea of natives as custodians of nature is paramount."

The centre will be designed in the form of a "Big House," the traditional living space of the Coast-Salish people. Another section will take the form of an "ishkin" or pit house in the tradition of the Lil’wat people.

Inside the main centre there will be a high-tech theatre to hold about 80 people, which will show 20-minute presentations about the history of the neighbouring First Nations. An upper hall will showcase exhibits. This main centre would be screened from Blackcomb Way with plants, said Waugh.

There will also be pavilions on the land, which will be low-impact, anthropologically correct replications of traditional First Nations buildings. The pavilions will be nestled within the existing forest.

The $13-million centre embodies the first Nation-to-Nation protocol signed by the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations in 2001. This protocol was designed to foster economic and cultural activities of common interest among First Nations people.

Whistler was deemed as one of the best sites for the project because the resort’s economic success sets up the centre for economic success too. Also, Whistler is in traditional territory shared by both Nations, Squamish to the south and Lil’wat to the north.

The centre has been in the works for the past couple of years. The provincial and federal governments will come up with $6 million to fund the project. First Nations have about $2 million to put towards the centre and will also be fundraising up to another $6 million said Waugh.

But a successful and busy tourist spot in that area is also a concern for some of the neighbouring residents.

Nelson said there would be an increasing number of tour buses bringing in people to dine at the centre’s restaurant.

With the additional buses there will be more noise and traffic.

"It’s definitely going to change the feel and tone of the property," she said.

She also criticized the public process of notifying the owners along Blackcomb Way of the proposed centre.

"Many are absentee owners," said Nelson, adding that the bulk did not know about Monday’s public hearing.

"It would have behooved council to give them more time."

Although Mayor Hugh O’Reilly pointed out that notices were dropped off at all the buildings facing the site, he conceded that there was no pressing timeline in moving the project forward on Monday night.

To accommodate those absentee owners, O’Reilly adjourned the public hearing Monday. It will be re-opened on April 22 at 7 p.m. before the regular council meeting.

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