Despite a local lawmaker’s concern about the potential for emergency services costs increasing as a result of the project, the proposed Sea to Sky Gondola cleared another legislative hurdle this week.
By a 5-3 vote, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) board on Monday (Feb. 27) passed first reading on rezoning and Area D Official Community Plan amendments for the gondola’s upper terminus, which would be located on a ridge leading to Mount Habrich, between Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls provincial parks. The top station would include viewing areas, a restaurant, a theatre and interpretive walking trails.
Squamish directors Patricia Heintzman and Rob Kirkham, both members of the previous council that gave third reading to similar District of Squamish amendments for the gondola’s base area, reiterated their support for the project SLRD board table, but did not support a late addition to an Area D zoning amendment.
The late addition dominated Monday’s discussion. As proposed by Area D director Moe Freitag, it would have required the applicants to “address the issues related to potential increases in search and rescue operations that may be generated as a result of this change in land use to the satisfaction of the CAO.”
Freitag, whose constituency includes the area where the upper gondola terminus would be located, said he wanted to see the proviso added to the SLRD’s approval because his constituents have seen a 100 per cent increase in emergency service requisitions in the past year.
The two Squamish directors and Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden all expressed hesitation about the addition. Kirkham noted that the zoning amendment already called for signage plans around the proposed trail network near the gondola offload area, while SLRD staff said the proponents intend to have emergency responders on staff to deal with any backcountry incidents.
“It’s really vague and open-ended and we’re not giving any specific direction,” said Kirkham. “It could be a real burden on the proponent.”
Heintzman made a motion to have the addition voted on as a separate item, but that motion failed. She, Kirkham and Wilhelm-Morden then voted against the recommendation that included the addition.
David Greenfield, one of the principals of the applicant, GroundEffects Development Inc., said it was his understanding that the SLRD had increased its contribution to emergency response agencies from around $18,000 to $36,000 this year.
“It’s a little bit unclear to me, but… Moe was just asking the question dealing with the issue of, if we’re likely to put more people up there, then that need may need to increase,” Greenfield said.
Freitag told The Chief on Tuesday (Feb. 28) that he raised the issue out of concern about the recent increase in the SLRD’s contribution to emergency services, including the Auxiliary Coast Guard and search and rescue agencies. He said he’s anxious to talk to District of Squamish officials about how best to share the cost of those services in the future.
“I’m not in any way trying to throw Squamish under the bus here, but there was an increase in the number of incidents in the SLRD last year and as a result, the requisition doubled,” Freitag said.
“I’m just trying to determine whether this is a valid concern and, if so, we want to work with Squamish on sharing the cost of that service. When I go back to my constituents, when they see that jump, they’re going to ask questions so I want them to know that we’re looking into it.”
Greenfield said gondola proponents have started to work on an emergency mitigation and response plan for the project and should have more details on the plan to present to the SLRD board, probably at its March 26 meeting.
Said Freitag, “I think Mayor Sturdy [of Pemberton] hit the nail on the head when he said Whistler Blackcomb wouldn’t move forward without more information on this issue, and I agree. But I have no doubt that Dave and his people will come forward with a plan that addresses that concern.”
Greenfield said that while the SLRD still has to approve three more readings on the project, he interpreted Monday’s vote as a positive development that keeps the proponents on track to begin construction this year and have the gondola up and running by the summer of 2013.
GroundEffects officials will likely make a presentation to the board at the March meeting, Greenfield said. The board may then consider second reading and, if that’s approved, the rezoning and OCP amendments would go to a public hearing before third reading is considered.
Greenfield said B.C. Parks and the Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations still have to provide approvals for the gondola to proceed. Greenfield said the proponents hope to have the SLRD’s final approval by this June and the one from B.C. Parks by July.
He said Squamish council’s recent endorsement of the project — which the proponents estimate will serve some 300,000 guests per year while creating between 20 and 50 jobs — was a key to the proponents’ efforts to secure subsequent government approvals.
“That goes a long way with the other agencies to have that support from the District of Squamish,” he said.
— With files from Eric MacKenzie, Whistler Question