Haven't we seen this before?

Last fall John Zen, who for the past 22 years has owned 111 acres across the highway from what is now becoming Spring Creek, floated a proposal to rezone his land and build approximately 242 bed units of market housing and 820 employee bed units. If approved, he would then dedicate 67 per cent of his property, much of it environmentally sensitive wetland, to the municipality for protection.

That plan was apparently not looked upon favourably – it never made it to a regular council meeting for discussion – so Zen has reverted to his fall-back position. This week he was granted a development permit for one trophy home. However, his property is subdivided into four parcels. He can build two more trophy homes and he has zoning for a trailer park on the fourth parcel.

Those who follow the developing development saga and the holy manna of bed units in this town will recall a similar either-or situation with the Decigon lands a few years ago. The Houghton brothers were either going to subdivide their property into six lots and sell the entire property off, or the municipality could rezone the property to create the same number of smaller lots and dedicate the rest of the land to the municipality for preservation. As it turns out a third party – Intrawest – became involved and a three-way deal was struck.

The B.C. Rail lands have already been subdivided into 24 lots, but there is a proposal to rezone the land and allow the same number of smaller lots and dedicate a large portion of the land for protection. While plans for the B.C. Rail lands are being massaged, Mr. Zen has apparently had enough and is going another route.

Nobody said things would get any easier as Whistler approached buildout, but did anyone expect a game of chicken?

The rules of this game seem to be: 1) The municipality can’t stop development – property owners have a right to build on their land, as staff explained to council this week. 2) Zoning is available, as are bonus densities, if a land owner can come up with a package of amenities and donations the municipality and council feels are suitable. 3) While Whistler’s list of amenity needs is lengthy, there may be an advantage in getting a proposal in early.

Various councils have over the years taken steps to limit development opportunities on these large parcels of land – changing the minimum size for subdivision from 20 acres to 100, reducing the list of permitted uses. Whistler councils have also identified lands they would like to preserve and have developed an environmental strategy that includes a set of values and reasons for protecting certain areas. In short, the municipality has attempted to shape and control the final stages of development in the valley, but it can’t come right out and say "no" to development.

The only other alternative is to purchase such lands, but Whistler doesn’t have the money to compensate land owners for what they can make exercising their existing development rights; i.e. the market for trophy homes is booming.

But in the case of the Zen property, what we’re left with at the moment is the antithesis of what Whistler has been all about: planning and wise use of land. Three trophy homes and a trailer park on that site would not seem to be in Whistler’s best interest, but the municipality appears to have rejected the earlier proposal for market and employee housing and it doesn’t have the money to buy the property.

Is anyone going to blink?

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