The public’s concerns over Whistler’s proposed Official Community Plan (OCP), the municipality’s primary document guiding future planning and development efforts that was given third reading at Tuesday’s (Nov. 20) council meeting, have been heard and several amendments have been made to reflect the issues raised.
“I think as a document, and the work that’s gone into it, it’s really important,” said Coun. Jack Crompton. “I’m excited that we’re going to put it to work and I’m excited going forward with deliberate, well-reasoned and well-studied planning.”
During a Nov. 6 public hearing, several local residents stood before council to note any changes they would like to see in the document, which underwent its first major overhaul in nearly two decades following 20 months of extensive public consultation.
Of particular concern for representatives from Whistler Blackcomb and proponents of the Whistler International Campus project in the Alpha Creek Lands area was a proposed hard cap on the number of bed units in the community, an effort to manage the resort town’s long-term development growth.
The updated OCP would allow for the hard cap to be raised following a thorough community engagement process for a potential development that demonstrates “extraordinary benefits to the resort community.” There is also a limited additional allowance of 477 bed units included in the proposed plan in order to provide council with flexibility when considering development opportunities that would raise the hard cap, without requiring an amendment to the OCP.
Whistler Blackcomb’s vice president of planning, government relations and special projects Doug Forseth spoke at the hearing, and while he didn’t ask for the bed cap to be lifted or increased, he did ask council Nov. 6 to consider awarding the resort operator any additional bed units should they be granted in the future “as a bit of a catch-up for bed units earned in the past that we have not realized.”
Whistler Blackcomb has been granted a total of 15,000 bed units throughout its history, a number reflective of the municipal growth management policy of the time.
“As we go forward, we'd like to think that potentially some recognition would be given to the investment that Whistler Blackcomb has made here," said Forseth during the hearing, noting the more than $300 million the company has invested over the years to become one of the world’s premiere ski resorts.
For Whistler International Campus proponents, the bed unit was of concern because they felt it didn’t adequately clarify whether student housing would be included in the bed cap.
The proponents, led by project leader Doug Player, have planned for 1,400 student beds to be housed on the 77-acre land parcel.
“Students were not included in the bed cap in the past,” said Player on Nov. 9. “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.”
Municipal staff, who met with representatives from both Whistler Blackcomb and the campus project throughout the document’s drafting period, decided against amending the bed cap to reflect their concerns, citing the community’s desire for a fixed cap “that could be relied on” as a major public concern that was raised on a consistent basis throughout the community engagement process.
Furthermore, no additional clarification on student housing was added to the updated OCP, with the report stating that the bed unit measure applies to all forms of accommodation.
“This document says we as a community want a bed cap. We’re not planning to get rid of it, so at this point I don’t want to talk about the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ around what happens if the bed cap gets removed,” said Coun. Crompton.
Another point of contention for Player and his team regarding the OCP is a potential 100-metre ecological assessment area for land parcels over 10 hectares in size, such as the proposed campus site, that contain sensitive wetland ecosystems.
The regulation would require a qualified environmental professional to assess the impact any development may have on the local wetland ecosystem within the 100-metre area before building would be allowed to begin, a costly obligation that could prevent the campus project from going forward, according to Player.
Current provincial guidelines recommend a 30-metre assessment area “to address wetland water quality functions,” according to the report, although a larger area of consideration was deemed necessary to protect Whistler’s sensitive wetland habitat and ecosystem connectivity and to promote local biodiversity.
Development would be allowed within the 100-metre buffer zone following the assessment, but it would require proponents to compensate the municipality for the creation of a new habitat, or the restoration of an existing habitat at a 2:1 ratio if permanent impact to the sensitive area cannot be avoided.
The qualified environmental professional would determine the scope of the work needed to be done and the required compensation amount.
The 100-metre determination, which was not amended in the new plan, was made with the help of Dr. Kristina Rothley from the Simon Fraser University of Resource and Environmental Management, who was consulted during the OCP’s drafting.
There are currently 477 properties in Whistler that could be subject to the 100-metre regulation, so a provision was added that would exempt any land alteration or construction from an OCP amendment if it disturbs an area of less than 1,000 square metres.
“It’s absolutely appropriate that we don’t impact those (477 properties) and cause unnecessary concerns or fees when someone is considering minor amendments to those properties,” said Coun. Duane Jackson.
The amended OCP draft will now be sent to the Squamish Lillooet Regional District, which is expected to approve the document’s regional context statement on Monday (Nov. 26).
Following its third reading Tuesday, the OCP now awaits provincial approval before it can be adopted by the RMOW. The province will consult with the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations to address their concerns surrounding the document, following what Mayor Wilhelm-Morden called a “lengthy” consultation period between the Nations and the RMOW.
First Nations representatives have expressed disappointment over the level of consultation between their respective communities and the municipality throughout the drafting process.
Council has stated their desire to have the document adopted by year’s end, although there are no assurances this will occur.