'Heads were starting to spin'

Former mayor talks about the history of habitat protection and development in Whistler

The history of habitat protection in Whistler cannot be told without also detailing the history of development in the resort community.

From the very beginning when the idea of a resort municipality was first just getting started to the current environmental issues facing the community, protecting habitat and in particular critical wetlands has been as a response to proposed development projects.

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Speaking at the Whistler Museum's recent speakers series, former mayor Ken Melamed talked about the gains that were made and habitat protected since the mid '70s. But instead of focusing on what some would consider failures, Melamed preferred to consider the lessons learned along the way.

"A lot of people are critical of what Whistler's impacts have been and mistakes that have been made," he said. "I hope we all remember that it wasn't until relatively recently that we knew what we were doing."

The first major environmental impacts in the valley, he said, were the railway and Highway 99 "before anybody was up here worrying about" habitat protection. While the resort was incorporated in 1975 and development underway, Melamed said the turning point was when the concept of a two mountain resort gained momentum and Blackcomb began to take shape.

"There was huge impacts to Whistler from those early development days, but I think it is worth mentioning and giving a lot of credit to the early town fathers," he said. "I don't know how they did it, but they actually came up with a Village plan that has given us a great platform to be as compact and efficient as we are."

The high density and pedestrian friendly Village design, he said, kept the resort's footprint light and prevented sprawl.

Melamed said a lot of planning occurred in the early '80s and development moved along with Joe Houssain buying out the Aspen interest in Blackcomb, which became the first part of the Intrawest chain and development of the Upper Village and Whistler base occurred.

But it was 1987 when the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment that habitat protection and environmental issues started to come to forefront in the community.

"It was because literally heads were staring to spin," said Melamed, who served as AWARE's president. "We formed really to get recycling going.

"We didn't really know much about land use or habitat protection, but really there was a need to organize community in the midst of all this development and growth."

The 1989 rewrite of the Official Community Plan and the decision to try and make Whistler a four season resort was a catalyst for AWARE's efforts to begin to advocate for protecting important habitat as a direct result of several development proposals. The OCP review meant an additional 7,500 bed units would be added to entice developers to propose golf and tennis amenities.

It was the 1996 election when Hugh O'Reilly became mayor and Jim Godfrey was hired as chief administrative officer, which resulted in a sea change at Municipal Hall and eventually led to a community survey to study Whistler attitudes.

"The No. 1 priority for Whistler was environment and that made mayor and council wake up to a certain degree, only so far as they needed to go," he said.

Melamed was also elected at that time with six years as president of AWARE under his belt and soon an environmental protection strategy was started, which is known today as Whistler 2020.

With that policy document and Whistler becoming the first municipality in North America to adopt the Natural Step, Melamed said Whistler has some of the strongest policy for environmental protection anywhere in B.C.

"It is a good thing we started this at the height of our economic success and at the height of our vision," he said.

A major win for habitat protection was the protection of the Emerald forest, although it involved a "horse trade" with the developer, which Melamed said is a lesson learned as agreeing to the deal in principle saw the value of the land skyrocket from what it was worth before $4.5 million to $10 million, which is what the municipality ended up paying with a three-way deal with Intrawest which created the Four Seasons.

There was the protection of the Callaghan Valley with the Legacy Lands First Nations deal for the Olympics; the protection of land that was to be developed into a driving range for the Bjorn Born tennis and golf resort; the Green Lakes Golf Course; protection of the River of Golden Dreams; Lakecrest; and Nita Lake Lodge.

While Melamed had no shortage of case studies to talk about he also took the opportunity to look to the future and said the biggest habitat protection battle facing the community in the short term is the Alpha Creek wetlands, also known as the Zen Lands.

Whistler International Campus is proposed to be developed on part of the site, which Melamed said would not mitigate the environmental impact of thousands of students in that area.

"We started fighting this at AWARE at the late '80s," he said. "I've seen a dozen development proposals from this because this (property owner) has visions of $20 million plus to come out of this land.

Melamed asked what would happen if the rezoning is approved for the university and then it isn't financially viable and the community is then burdened with the economic outcomes of the investors.

"I don't know what security the community can hold that would be big enough to actually have a Plan B for this site and again a serious question about how it can be responsibly developed on there at all," he said.

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