The chicken and egg question

Monday’s council meeting began with a presentation by former Delta Mayor Beth Johnson, in which she praised Whistler for its forward-thinking policies toward the environment, including the environmental strategy and its incorporation into the Vision 2002 document, the Natural Step program, the "20 per cent club" which is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other "green" initiatives.

The meeting concluded with frustrations expressed by several councillors about how council is reacting – rather than being pro-active – with regard to large trophy home proposals and the bonus densities permitted under the Local Government Act.

"The fundamental difficulty, in my view, is council has been put in a reactive situation," Nick Davies said as council discussed a zoning amendment bylaw for the two Houghton homes at Taluswood. "We need to be pro-active. We need to have a formula for ‘green’ houses before the next application. We need to get it right from here on in," Davies said before council voted 5-1 to adopt the zoning amendment.

The fact of the matter is council and municipal staff were still grappling with things like "green" building practices and putting tax revenue from homes over 5,000 square feet toward an affordability fund when they dealt with the next item on the agenda, the Kerfoot home and its private ice rink.

In some respects, its difficult to have policies in place for things that have never come up before, such as the bonus density allowed under the new Local Government Act. That’s the clause in the Act that allowed the Houghton brothers to increase the size of their homes in exchange for community amenities – in this case a $250,000 donation to the new day care and a $50,000 contribution toward Millennium Place.

Councillor Kristi Wells made the point that it is an evolving process and the flexibility of a protocol – particularly in regard to community amenities – rather than a policy might best serve Whistler. The question in the community, Wells noted, is whether Whistler got the best deal it could. But that’s difficult to determine when a large home two years ago would have generated different community amenities than one today. As Whistler evolves values evolve.

Dave Kirk noted councillors have discussed the bonus density issue and agreed it could be useful, but council hasn’t agreed on a form.

A "green" building requirement was placed on the Houghtons’ homes and the Kerfoot house, but that too is an issue that is at the conceptual stage rather than policy. Guidelines produced in Colorado were used for both Whistler projects.

While private ice rinks and bonus densities are new concepts council has had to react to ("We continue to be taken aback by the inventiveness of developers," Ken Melamed said of the Kerfoot ice rink), the demand for land and for large homes has been building for years. Whistler has frequently looked to Aspen and Vail, where estate homes have been around for decades, to catch a glimpse of the future. A quick study of the local real estate market over the past two years provides further evidence of where things are going.

But if Whistler is reacting to trophy homes and inventive developers, rather than being pro-active, that ignores the main factor driving much of this trophy-home madness: the cap on development – a pro-active step taken by councils years ago and now supported by nearly everyone.

Whistler is in new territory. Some of the issues associated with a cap on development could be anticipated, others are surprises. Whistler can loosen the cap or, as is being done with amendments to permitted uses under the RR1 zoning, try and guide development in a way that’s consistent with community goals.

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