Density bonuses part of the future? 

Rezoning for large homes receive first approvals in exchange for ‘community amenities’

"Bonus density" is a term Whistler may be hearing more of in the future, but councillors who voted in favour of it Monday insist they did not set a precedent and that each future application will be judged on its own merits.

The economic and social virtues of large homes and the character of Whistler as a community were all part of the debate before council gave first two readings to Glenn and Larry Houghtons’ rezoning application for bonus density.

The Houghtons want to built two 5,000 square foot homes on their property at Taluswood. Current zoning allows for two 3,500 square foot homes. But under section 904 of the revised Local Government Act the Houghtons have applied for bonus density in return for providing a community amenity. That amenity is a $250,000 contribution to the Spring Creek day care and $50,000 toward construction costs of Millennium Place.

Ken Melamed was the only councillor at Monday’s meeting to vote against the rezoning application (Councillor Kristi Wells was absent). Melamed spoke passionately about the impact he sees large homes having on the character of the community.

Melamed said he did not support homes greater than 3,500 square feet and pointed to American ski resorts, where large homes are common, that have lost their character and soul.

"One of the things that characterizes our resort is we have a community. It’s important to keep that, to keep our employees here," Melamed said.

He suggested that allowing density bonuses encourages the tear down of older, more affordable homes.

"This trend is driving out the middle class, it’s not just the people in subsidized housing," he said.

"How many people want to live here when we appear to be catering to the filthy rich?"

Other councillors saw things differently. Dave Kirk said the Houghton application was a one-off affair.

"This is not a neighbourhood whose values are going to be substantially affected by increasing the size of these houses," Kirk said.

"I don’t think the situation is quite as hopeless as has been made out."

Kirk, like other councillors, said he was not in favour of tear-downs and that municipal staff was working on a policy to try and halt that trend.

"This is a compromise we’re being asked to look at, and that’s the art of politics. I don’t think we can protect some of the things we are trying to protect without compromising," Kirk said.

The market for large homes in Whistler has exploded in the last couple of years. One of the arguments being made in favour of large homes is that because they are generally worth more they generate more property tax revenue for the municipality. That is becoming increasingly important given that Whistler is nearing its ceiling on development and the development cost charges the municipality collects on new buildings will eventually run out.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly followed up on the economic argument and Melamed’s comparison of Whistler with American resorts.

American resorts are not as reliant on property taxes as Whistler – they have more financial tools, O’Reilly said, "but we have more controls over land use."

He pointed to the municipally-imposed requirement that each of the Houghton homes have an employee suite.

"I’d like to see us impose more conditions on (large homes)," O’Reilly said. He suggest council might make adoption of the Natural Step principles a condition of approval of large homes.

O’Reilly and other councillors pointed out the $250,000 from the Houghtons will allow the Spring Creek day care to complete its fund-raising.

"I hear your concerns," O’Reilly told Melamed, "but I see more merit (in this project) overall."

The Hougtons’ rezoning application will go to a public hearing in the new year.

The Hougtons received the property from Intrawest as part of last year’s three-way Emerald Forest deal. Intrawest is believed to have paid the Houghtons about $9 million and the Taluswood property for the 139-acre Emerald Forest area. Intrawest then turned the Emerald Forest over to the municipality, to be preserved as part of an environmental corridor. Intrawest in turn received $1 million and 476 additional bed units from the municipality.

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