A Whistler International Campus proponent said new development regulations in the recently proposed Official Community Plan (OCP) could prevent the project from continuing, should the municipal document be approved.
Doug Player, the leader behind the multi-million dollar project that could see an international post-secondary university campus in Whistler, brought up his concerns at a public hearing last Tuesday (Nov. 6).
“We’re not asking for a huge change to their approach, we’re not asking for special favours here, we’re basically asking for fairness,” Player said Friday (Nov. 9).
There were several issues he had with the first major overhaul to Whistler’s primary planning and land use document in nearly 20 years.
First, is the 100-metre riparian area regulation (RAR) that would surround the Alpha Creek Lands, the 77-acre site where the campus would be housed, were the document to be approved.
The current provincial guideline suggests an RAR of 30 metres.
According to the regulation, a qualified environmental expert would have to assess the impact any development would have on the surrounding wetland ecosystem and fish habitat before construction could begin, a requirement that “immediately increases our costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Player.
There’s only one other parcel of land within municipal boundaries, located near Green Lake, that has the same 100-metre designation included in the draft OCP.
Municipal staff are preparing a report on the riparian assessment regulations specific to the updated community plan for Tuesday’s (Nov. 20) council meeting, said RMOW spokesperson Michele Comeau.
“Not only would (the RAR) cost us a whole bunch, but it would sterilize a good part of the land. It devalues the land immediately,” said Player, who thinks the increased assessment area is “a holdover from the last council, when they literally wanted to sterilize the land.”
The second issue for Player and the Alpha Creek proponents is the OCP’s proposed hard cap on bed units, which seeks to limit future growth by controlling the number of bed units allowed in the community.
The draft OCP includes a clause that would allow council to consider potential projects that would raise the allowed number of bed units if it was an opportunity that demonstrated “extraordinary benefits to the resort community.”
Player and his team feel that if the campus project goes ahead, that council would have no choice but to invoke this clause in order to allow for student residences on the site.
This clause was of particular concern for Player, who feels its ambiguity in defining what would constitute an “extraordinary” benefit could limit its effectiveness.
He also wants further clarification on whether the proposed site’s 1,400 student beds would count towards the community’s hard cap.
“Students were not included in the bed cap in the past,” said Player, who hopes the draft OCP will be amended so that school housing is excluded from the bed cap. “The bed unit seems to anticipate a distinction in its reference to multiple residential dwellings and commercial accommodation, and we really aren’t either, because these are student residences, they come and go.”
The current zoning on the site allows for the construction of four single-family houses. Player has plans to start building a 5,000-square foot house in the spring. Crews have conducted blasting on the lands and have installed a road leading to the proposed site of the campus’ Leadership Centre.
Along with providing a world-class facility and a quality education to its students, Player said he hopes the campus will provide some economic benefits as well.
“All I’m trying to do is give something to our community that’s going to level the economic ups and downs a little bit and bring some real good clean industry to town,” he said.
The concept for the proposed campus is to eventually offer courses from different international universities that have partnered with the school. In order for this to happen, however, the provincial government would have to lift a moratorium in order to allow the establishment of a new university.
Player currently has four partner schools committed, including Fachhochschule Technikum Wien, Austria’s largest university of applied sciences, which signed on during Player’s visit to Europe last week.
Even with the potential setbacks, he and his team remain hopeful.
“We continue to be optimistic. We think, for the most part, council has treated us very fairly, but we don’t think the OCP treats us fairly,” he said.
Council appointed an education task force in September that is responsible for examining all potential postsecondary opportunities in Whistler’s future, including nearby Capilano University, which has expressed interest in providing education opportunities in the resort town. The group has met once since it was created, and has plans to meet on a monthly basis until it reports back to council, expected to occur in March.
Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who sits on the education task force, and council are not allowed to comment on issues surrounding the OCP until after its adoption, as per municipal law.
Second and third readings of the OCP are scheduled for Tuesday’s council meeting.