Complex deal, touches many community issues

According to surveys, the Whistler 2002 document, last fall’s first phase of the comprehensive sustainability plan and anyone with a grasp of the obvious, two of this community’s highest priorities are more resident/employee housing and preservation of the environment.

Also high on the wish list are improved health care and passenger train service to Vancouver as an alternative to Highway 99.

The Nita Lake Lodge proposal, which drew close to 200 people for a public hearing Monday night, doesn’t deliver everything on Whistler’s priority list, but it certainly makes it possible to move closer to realizing those priorities.

The Nita Lake proposal includes resident restricted housing for sale to permanent residents and seasonal employee housing, which will enable small businesses to secure accommodation for staff.

The project will also preserve a 25-acre parcel of the sensitive Alpha Creek wetlands. That’s not all of the wetlands but it does secure a large portion of them. The alternative – downzoning the privately held lands against the wishes of owner John Zen – would certainly result in a lawsuit. The municipality might win that suit, but it would cost taxpayers money to find out.

Passenger rail service between Whistler and the Lower Mainland won’t happen without a new train station, which is part of the Nita Lake Lodge proposal. There is no train station and no passenger rail service at present.

The first priority of Whistler Rail Tours, a private company associated with the Nita Lake Lodge, is to tap into Vancouver’s cruise ship market and bring those summer visitors to Whistler. The next priority may be to go after tours and convention business, making the train trip to Whistler part of a tour package. That isn’t commuter rail service. However it is additional business for Whistler and it lays the foundation for future commuter rail service. In time it may become cost effective for Whistler Rail Tours to add a commuter rail car on its run, providing an alternative link from Pemberton to Whistler, Squamish and the Lower Mainland. That’s not a given, but nothing will happen without a train station and a train service.

Nita Lake Lodge will also donate more than $1 million toward health care facilities in Whistler, half for immediate needs and half to build a permanent health care fund with the Community Foundation of Whistler.

The developers were praised at Monday’s public hearing for listening to the community and responding to its needs and concerns over the two-plus years the project has evolved. At one time the proposal included a private medical clinic. That was dropped after local health care providers raised concerns about having medical facilities at both ends of the valley and moving patients back and forth.

Polling by the developers also found strong public support for using bed units from the existing inventory. The Nita Lake Lodge proposal is to buy part of the Alpha Creek wetlands, transfer the bed units from that land to the Nita Lake lodge site at Creekside, and preserve the wetlands. An alternative proposal from municipal hall to the developers was to donate $6.5 million for community amenities – such as the proposed library/museum building and to retire the debt on Millennium Place – in exchange for creating "new" bed units.

The size and massing of the lodge itself – 80 rooms and four storeys – is of some concern, particularly to neighbours. If the London Mountain Lodge proposal on the west side of Nita Lake also goes ahead the lake will be almost entirely surrounded by developments.

Those who are philosophically opposed to more development in Whistler and the practice of relying on developers to answer community needs also have concerns about the project. But those concerns can only be addressed in a broader context, such as the comprehensive sustainability plan. The Nita Lake Lodge proposal works within the existing rules and established procedures for development in Whistler, including the bed unit cap.

If the municipality had been able to acquire John Taylor’s lands and turn the south end of Nita Lake into a park, this proposal wouldn’t have come forward. If the comprehensive sustainability plan had been done earlier, it might have made the Nita Lake Lodge impossible. If the 1991 Whistler Creek development plan had been revisited it might have precluded this development. But none of those steps were taken.

Until the comprehensive sustainability plan is completed and Whistler decides what it needs and what it can afford, development proposals must be evaluated in the context they are presented. In the case of the Nita Lake Lodge proposal the positives for the community vastly outweigh the negatives, and it should go ahead.

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