RMOW opposes Harbour Air lease amendment 

Operator says no expansion planned, will work with municipality

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPUIS - UP IN THE AIR  Harbour Air has applied for an amendment to its lease on Green Lake, but the Resort Municipality of Whistler has some issues it would like to work through first.
  • PHOTO by Braden Dupuis
  • UP IN THE AIR Harbour Air has applied for an amendment to its lease on Green Lake, but the Resort Municipality of Whistler has some issues it would like to work through first.

Visiting New Zealand some decades ago, Whistlerite Jim Horner fell in love with the country.

"I loved it so much ... when I got to Mount Cook we did a four-day tramp across the Fox Glacier from Mount Cook, which was a great experience," Horner recalled.

But on a recent trip back, things had changed.

"It's Disneyland now ... people don't want to hike, they want to do their 25-minute flight, right?" Horner said. "Now it is as many planes and helicopters as they can have in the air, because that's how many busloads of tourists have a little bucket list of what they must do on their holiday."

The experience wasn't the same.

"It ruined it," Horner said. "It wasn't one (plane) that was coming, getting louder, and going away. It's a continual carousel of planes overhead, and helicopters, and their only governor is that they've just got the one airstrip, and the planes are literally lined up to take off and land."

Seeing that Harbour Air Terminal Services has applied for an amendment to its existing lease on Green Lake, Horner worried Whistler might suffer a similar fate, prompting him to write to mayor and council requesting a no-fly zone over Whistler's subdivisions.

Though Harbour Air's application proposes adding an additional two hectares to the company's lease, effectively doubling the lease area, the company has no plans to expand, said president Randy Wright.

The application will bring an existing wing dock under Harbour's lease, Wright said.

"So what you see is exactly what we're keeping, and that wing dock needs to be part of the lease that we inherited from a different owner that was not part of the lease," Wright said. "I want to emphasize that what's existing there is exactly the same. We're not expanding."

Public comments on the application were accepted until July 15.

In its response, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) opposed the application, said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

"We need to resolve issues related to parking and to the increase in the float plane traffic," she said. "We understand from the applicant that they are supportive of working with us to update the existing operating agreement and to resolve issues concerning increased traffic and parking, so we just need to work these things through."

The RMOW also has concerns with increased congestion at access points to Green Lake as well as negative environmental impacts, the mayor said.

"We are one of the international ski resorts that doesn't have an onsite airport, so there's a lot of pressure on the float plane traffic, in particular in the summertime, to expand its availability, and I know that during the G7 finance ministers conference there was just a continual stream of float plane traffic," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"(Green Lake) is right in the heart of Whistler, and many of the planes when they're departing or landing, they fly directly over neighbourhoods, when previous operators had promised not to do so.

"So there are some very legitimate concerns about nuisance and congestion and so on."

When Harbour Air acquired its lease, the docks were reconfigured to move planes further away from homes and into deeper water, which is safer, Wright said in a follow up email.

The company is also discussing adjusting its flight paths.

"Anywhere we operate, we work with the community, and there have been discussions of flight paths, etc. so we try to minimize any inconvenience to the residents of the community," Wright said. "There will be some adjustments to flight paths, but we are in discussions."

Aviation is the jurisdiction of Transport Canada, meaning there isn't much in the way of controls for municipalities wanting to restrict air traffic (aside from opposing the foreshore lease application), said MLA Jordan Sturdy.

"We're trying to get some clarity on that ... so I understand the issue in terms of what kind of influence do communities have in terms of the use of that infrastructure," Sturdy said.

The discussion around increasing air traffic comes back to the growth in tourism, and the constant tension around how much is enough, Sturdy said.

"How do we balance the community needs and the whole purpose of the resort in the first place?" he said.

"What is Whistler's purpose? And who is it there to serve? That's the challenge of local government."

-with files from Brandon Barrett

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