Lessons in literature, and big houses 

If you were searching for an understanding of modern Ireland you might consider Leon Uris’s Trinity.

If you were searching for an understanding of modern Whistler you might consider the Houghton brothers, and how their Emerald Forest property led (or will lead) to a hotel on the Benchlands, two 5,000 square foot houses in Taluswood, completion of the Spring Creek day care and Monday’s debate over the future direction of Whistler.

Not that the Houghton’s would claim to have changed – or were even interested in changing – the course of Whistler history, but the epic trek that began with their request to develop the Emerald Forest, through the three-way deal involving Intrawest and the municipality to preserve the forest, and culminating with council’s approval of their bonus density in exchange for $300,000 has all the plot twists, themes and characters of a great novel. There was a choice between civilization and nature; temptation played a roll, as did redemption; there were moral dilemmas; and finally, as demonstrated Monday, passion and compromise.

For those who may not recall, the deal to preserve the Emerald Forest lands involved the Houghtons selling the 139 acres to Intrawest, reportedly for $6.8 million. Intrawest then turned the land over to the municipality, preserving a green corridor between Alta and Green Lakes, for $1 million and 476 new bed units above and beyond Whistler’s self-imposed cap on development. Intrawest will use the bed units to build a hotel on the Benchlands.

As partial payment to the Houghtons, Intrawest provided two lots in Taluswood. Those lots were rezoned to allow houses up to 3,500 square feet. The Houghtons wanted 5,000 square foot houses so, under the Local Government Act, they asked for bonus densities in exchange for a community amenity. That amenity is $300,000 cash; $250,000 for the Spring Creek day care and $50,000 for Millennium Place.

In Whistler parlance this story had everything: bed units, the environment, Intrawest, the interests of part-time residents colliding with the interests of full-time residents, and finally Monday’s debate over affordability, sustainability and credibility – issues which are at the heart of Whistler today.

Councillors Ken Melamed and Dave Kirk spoke emotionally and passionately against the bonus density Monday, for different reasons. Ultimately they were unsuccessful, as council voted 4-2 in favour of accepting the cash amenity and allowing the larger houses, but there was more to the debate than the bottom line numbers of the vote.

Kirk’s argument was that this was the first time Whistler had considered cash for zoning under the Local Government Act, and developers and realtors had suggested to him council would find itself on a slippery slope if it went ahead with the Houghtons’ application before it established some ground rules for this process. His concerns barely registered with other councillors.

Melamed’s concerns were with the impact large houses have on the affordability and sustainability of the community. This argument eventually led to a separate motion to explore the possibility of using tax revenue from homes greater than 3,500 square feet for an affordability fund.

Whether this story has a happy ending or a sad ending depends on your interpretation. But like great literature, the process has been educational and fascinating. It also goes some way to explaining who we are.

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