Maxed out - Chump change 

When the nation grew weary of the Prime Ministerial reign of Pierre Trudeau and Pierre grew weary of the nation, the winds of change were in the air. Like Kim Campbell in later years, John Turner was selected the sacrificial lamb and thrown to the electoral wolves two and a half months later. The slaughter was quick and brutal and the Liberals collectively sunk into opposition to lick their wounds.

One of the first things BM the PM did was repeal Pierre’s draconian Foreign Investment Review Act and proclaim, "Canada is open for business." That Canada was already an economic outpost of multinational businesses – notably based in the US – was seen as the leading edge of a good thing of which we could never have too much. The chaining of Canada bloomed like fireweed in a clearcut.

What in the world, I can hear you ask, does this have to do with Whistler? Maybe nothing. But each week, I have to start somewhere so cut me some slack. Come to think of it, when I ponder what’s going on in council chambers and the labyrinth of muni staff right now, I’m left with an uneasy feeling we’re entering Muldoon’s dream world of endless flows of investment dollars.

"Whistler is open for business." Or is that, "Whistler is up for grabs"?

An apparent change in the Municipal Act – about which I am totally ignorant and can gratefully remain that way while still making some sense – has allowed our mayor and council to take on the guise of Monty Hall and play Let’s Make A Deal in the cold, hard light of day instead of in smoky back rooms where these kinds of deals used to be cooked up.

The quid in this new legal landscape is development rights and the quo is amenities. My 1989 Canadian dictionary is so old that its definition of amenity – n. Agreeableness; pleasantness; pl. Acts or expressions of courtesy. – doesn’t begin to embrace the concept under consideration here. Amenities in this brave new world are things like day care centres and community centres, hockey arenas and dog pounds a municipality might need but doesn’t have the scratch to build. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you let me build a hog farm on the outskirts of town, you get your dog pound. Quid pro quo.

Enter the Houghton brothers. The small percentage of you who pay any attention to what goes on in our hamlet will remember the Houghton brothers. Think Emerald Forest. Think ménage à trois with the Houghtons, Intrawest and the previous council all in bed together to secure the Emerald Forest for park land, lay the groundwork for yet another massive hotel on the Blackcomb benchlands, put a couple of mil in the bros’ pockets and give them a nice plot of land in Taluswood upon which they could build their dream homes.

Problem was, the lot was zoned for townhouses totalling 7,000 square feet and no, I don’t know what the metric equivalent is. Problem solved; council agreed to sever the lot into two titles and allow 3,500 square foot homes on each.

New problem. Seems the Houghtons would be squeezed a little tight if forced to live in 3,500 square foot shacks. Five thousand square feet each would be a more comfortable fit for their respective families.

Totally unrelated problems. The new daycare centre planned for the Spring Creek area is about 250G’s short of funding to go ahead; it is badly needed. For reasons that escape me, Millennium Place could use another 50G’s.

Quid: $300,000 cold, hard cash. Quo: Zoning variance to allow each of the brothers Houghton to build 5,000 square foot cottages on the scenic slope of Whistler Mountain.

I’ve got to admire the brothers’ chutzpah. They engineered a brilliant, complex business deal that allowed them to realize their profit on a piece of land they managed to assemble through the unconscionable ignorance of one of Mayor Nebbeling’s former councils, without ever exposing themselves to the construction or marketing risk of developing it. They talked council into dealing favourably with the townhome site Intrawest tossed into the deal to make it work. Now, having an unspoiled track record, they’re back for one more kick at the cat.

I’m not going to delve into the philosophical, environmental or ethical quagmire of whether 5,000 square foot homes are good or bad. I think they suck and if there is any such thing as karma or a just God, all the little piggies will be made into bacon in this life or the next, if you believe in such things. The sad fact is, more of the final development of Whistler will involve the indulgently rich building homes that fly in the face of sustainable community, environmental stewardship or any concept of human scale. Money talks.

And I’m not going to be drawn into a debate about the need for daycare. Of course it’s needed. The rate at which the fecund population of our town commits parenthood and the reality of service job salaries precludes the quaint notion of a stay-at-home parent tending happily to their offspring. We will all pay for the next generation of shredders; it has been ever thus.

I’m not even going to wade into a debate about whether the ends justify the means. Whether it’s daycare, dog pounds or hockey rinks, the way of the future seems destined to be an unholy blend of corporate sponsorships, benevolent bequests and amenity swaps, at least until Victoria gets off its keester and recognizes this special kind of town it helped create needs special powers of taxation to siphon off a few more bucks from each of the tourists who come here to play.

But let’s not sell ourselves short.

I don’t object to being a hooker; I just object to being a cheap hooker. If we’re going to play Let’s Make a Deal, let’s sharpen our pencils and decide what we think things are worth, not just sit around waiting for someone to make a bargain-basement offer.

$300,000 for 3,000 square feet is chump change. A thousand bucks a square foot.

Let’s face it, Messrs. Houghton are in the development business; they may live in their homes forever and they may flip them into a hot real estate market next year. What’s the economic benefit of an extra 3,000 square feet on the open market? Whatever it is, that should be the opening bid. Throw in another bone or two for turning a blind eye to existing zoning.

With more quids coming down the road, we need sharper pros than we seem to have doing the deals. Send this turkey back to the bargaining table.

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