Construction on a project that one local lawmaker said “will really mean something to this community” was set to kick off this week.
Proponents of the Sea to Sky Gondola, which has been in the government approvals pipeline for the past 20 months, planned to start work on Wednesday (March 6) on the base area for the aerial tram that will transport visitors to a point 2,700 feet (825 metres) above the valley floor, between Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls provincial parks.
For a project of its size, the gondola, first presented to the community in July 2011, had a relatively smooth ride through the B.C. and local government approvals process. It first received zoning approval from the District of Squamish for the base area, then from the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) for the top station.
A B.C. Parks boundary adjustment was required to allow the cable tramline and towers to be built on what was part of a Class A provincial park — a move that drew opposition from a group called Friends of the Stawamus Chief and others. The last major piece was approval in October 2012 of a park-use permit from the Ministry of Environment.
On Tuesday (March 5), Squamish council gave its unanimous blessing to a development permit and design for the base area for the gondola, which is expected to attract some 300,000 guests a year when it's in full operation. The proponents are targeting May 2014 as the launch date.
While there were questions raised about specific aspects of the base-area plan, local lawmakers for the most part had high praise for the project and its potential to boost Squamish's tourist industry.
Coun. Ron Sander made the motion to approve the base-area design.
“When you sign up to be a councillor but not with the intention of being a lifetime politician, you kind of hope some stuff will happen on your watch that will last and that will really mean something to the community,” Sander said.
“I think we were the first government body to see and give our OK to this and I'm proud of that, because I think this is a great project.”
Coun. Doug Race echoed that sentiment, saying he thinks the base-area design is an attractive one. “I think the community should be grateful to see a project like this locate here,” he said.
In a presentation to council, DOS planner Sarah McJannet said there will be four structures in the base area including a gondola terminal building, a guest services building, a coffee bar/concession facility and an administrative office with an accessory residential dwelling. By agreement with the District of Squamish, the retail portions of the base area will be “restricted use” areas — that is, available only to ticket holders.
That provision was put in place because of concerns that such a facility with unrestricted access might draw business away from other parts of Squamish, especially downtown.
Coun. Sue Chapelle said that while she fully supports existing Squamish businesses, she wouldn't mind seeing that issue revisited.
“If you have a family of four and three people want to go up but the fourth does not, that person might want to get a coffee or use the other facilities at the bottom,” she said.
Council's approval of the development permit included a variance to existing DOS policy regarding the minimum spacing of trees in the parking area on the 6.17-acre site. While the policy calls for at least one tree for every eight parking stalls, the proponents wanted a couple areas with the trees more widely dispersed — one tree for every 16 stalls.
Coun. Patricia Heintzman questioned the move, saying she had never seen such a variance request in her seven years on council. But she came away satisfied after McJannet said the change was needed only in a couple of places on the site.
David Greenfield, one of two main principles of the Sea to Sky Gondola Corp., said the proponents were grateful for the district's support — both the comments from councillors and changes to the plan suggested by members of Squamish's Advisory Design Panel.
“The comments councillors Sander and Race were very welcome and we're excited to move this project forward,” he said. “We're also excited to receive the suggestions — we want to continue to make the project better.”
Greenfield said site clearing for the base area would begin on Wednesday. As well, the proponents are heading to Switzerland this weekend to visit with officials with lift builders Doppelmyr Garaventa to choose a design for the gondola cabins.
Asked about financing for the project, Greenfield said Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. executed a private equity offering and attracted a broad range of investors, most of them from the Lower Mainland. Some of those are institutional in nature, including more than one investment capital firm, he said.