Friday, October 15, 2004

Jumbo headache for politicians in ski resort plans

VICTORIA - The Jumbo Glacier ski resort is shaping up to be one huge headache for government.
This should have been a good news story for the Liberals. The proposed development, near Invermere, would let people drive to a resort that offered year-round high glacier skiing, an experience available nowhere else in North America. Some 6,000 housing units, 23 lifts, stores, restaurants, lots of jobs. The valley has already been logged and mined and is hardly pristine.
The project certainly fits the government's plans. The Liberals have a junior minister, Sandy Santori, whose only responsibility it to get more resorts developed in B.C.
So you'd expect a big announcement that a $450-million project had just won environmental assessment approval, with the premier and local MLAs on hand in local communities to celebrate the good news, maybe with one of those videos the Liberals make for good news press conferences.
Instead Resource Minister George Abbott revealed the news from the Press Theatre, underground in the legislature. He took pains to distance the government from the project, and to emphasize that the decision on whether it will go ahead is up to the East Kootenay Regional District directors. The land isn't zoned for a resort; if they won't change the zoning, the project is dead.
And the district won't even have to decide until the resort developer and Land and Water BC agree on a management plan and lease agreement, a process Abbott said could take up to a year.
Why the nervousness?
The main reason is the strong local opposition to the project. Opponents point to risks to nearby grizzly bears, although the environmental asset - a huge undertaking - said the problems can be managed, in part through cutting back the size of the development. The resort also threatens the existence of long-standing local businesses, including a heli-ski operation that already operates on the glaciers.
And mostly people in the area would just prefer that the valley stay the way it is. I haven't seen any public opinion polls on the project, but Abbott acknowledged that 90 per cent of the thousands of submissions during the environmental review opposed the project for a variety of reasons.
The number of submissions doesn't count in the environmental review, which is supposed to be fact-based. The report addressed concerns about waste water, the development's size, wildlife conflicts and employment opportunities for First Nations.
But public opinion will count when the project gets to the East Kootenay Regional District directors.
Abbott had barely finished talking when the first icy blasts came from opponents. Meredith Hamstead of the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society called the decision "foolish" and vowed to go global with the battle against the resort.
Abbott did remove one of the opponents' most significant fears. He ruled out using the Significant Projects Streamlining Act to force approval of the Jumbo resort. The law, passed by the Liberals, allows cabinet to over-rule local governments and most boards and commissions to force approval of projects cabinet deems "significant."
Jumbo looked as if it met that test. But Abbott said it doesn't, and the powers won't be used. The decision is up to the regional district.
That should make for a ferocious municipal election campaign in the region next fall, when the project could just be moving to the district for review, with Jumbo as the over-riding issue. (It will also be a big issue in next May's provincial election, despite Abbott's attempt to paint it as a local decision.)
Jumbo is also a test of the government's resort policy. The project was first proposed 13 years ago, and has been working through or waiting on reviews and land use planning exercises ever since.
The fight for approval still looks tough. And if Jumbo fails, it's hard to imagine investors risking much time on plans for any new large-scale resort in rural B.C.
Footnote: Local MLA Wendy McMahon has yet to take a position on the resort, citing the need to wait for the environmental assessment. The riding is a potential swing seat in next May's election, and the resort project is going to be a critical issue for Liberal, NDP and Green candidates.

1 comment:

RossK said...

Thanks for getting to that fifth W.

However, could it be that there is a little more to the 'Why' than just the local swing riding?

For exmaple, is it possible that international environmental pressure and/or protests, and the big money advertising that would come with them, are things that the Liberals would like to avoid at all costs in the run-up to May's election?

Jack W