Whose numbers to believe?

Some fundamental questions have to be asked in the wake of Monday’s decision by municipal council and staff to shelve the Whistler Three development proposal, such as "Is there a need for more employee housing?"

Apparently staff and most members of council think the demand can be met with housing projects that are already approved and coming on stream in the next couple of years. That’s news to the Whistler Housing Authority, which has been working with two developers for much of the past year to shape projects that would provide the 900 additional rental units it feels are needed.

Three members of council and the municipal administrator sit on the housing authority board, but in the words of WHA general manager Rick Staehli, "the housing scenarios and the discussions we’ve had here haven’t materialized over at the hall."

Apparently there’s more than disagreement between municipal hall and the WHA, there’s something of a rivalry for power. While it’s true the WHA has a simple mandate – to provide housing – and municipal staff is asked to weigh development proposals against a variety of policies and principles, including protecting the environment, the rationale for some decisions doesn’t seem to make sense. If protecting the environment was the reason for rejecting the Whistler Three and, earlier, the Alpha Creek proposals, then the municipality has failed. There will be development on those lands, under the existing zoning, and the municipality will have little control over it.

It was suggested by several council and municipal staff members Monday that there are other options available for employee housing, if and when it is needed. There were allusions to the B.C. Assets and Lands Corporation’s stockpile of floating bed units and that BCAL’s mandate may change following the provincial election. Perhaps the Liberals have dropped hints at municipal hall that we don’t know about, but this scenario raises more questions: If the municipality acquires BCAL’s bed units will it be bartering with developers for them? And if so, where will those bed units land? Will zoning and bonus densities be for sale? Is another three-way deal such as the one to preserve the Emerald Forest in the works?

These types of questions suggest it is time the municipality updated its Official Community Plan and Comprehensive Development Strategy, so the community has a clearer idea of what direction things are headed.

One option the municipality may have difficulty pulling together, at least in the short term, is partnering with private land owners. The proponents of the Whistler Three and Alpha Creek developments feel they have been ambushed by the municipality. They aren’t the first two developers to feel that way about Whistler, and it’s understood that there are no guarantees in the development world. But it’s also easy to see why they feel they’ve been betrayed. They went to the housing authority, which is accountable to council, with the expectation they were getting the municipality’s position on housing needs. Both projects were reviewed several times by council and municipal staff members as they evolved – only to be rejected after a great deal of time and money was spent.

In the wake of these decisions, as Staehli said this week, it’s unlikely anyone in the private sector would step forward with an employee housing project. And the problem with that – if more employee housing is needed – is the housing authority is almost out of money. It can’t afford to build any more housing itself.

Finally, Staehli and members of council Monday all agreed that Whistler’s goal of housing 80 per cent of its employees within the municipality is probably unachievable. Staehli said Whistler dropped below 80 per cent this winter and the number could be as low as 60 per cent in a couple of years. At that point the Whistler Three and Alpha Creek proposals will be long gone.

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