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Democracy has been ignored, wishes of local residents disregarded and taxpayers are on the hook for costs associated with a private company’s real estate deal that will give them access to thousands of acres of Crown land, say Kootenay residents and politicians opposed to plans to build a billion-dollar ski resort deep within the Purcell Mountains.
The 24-year history of Jumbo Glacier Resort is marked by controversy and breathtaking departures from usual government process. As the deadline approaches for the province to decide whether to finally approve an Environmental Assessment Certificate, feelings in nearby communities remain raw.
In Invermere, the closest community to the site, Mayor Gerry Taft shakes his head trying to explain how an appointed mayor and council of an adjacent municipality — with no residents or buildings — can make decisions about the surrounding backcountry.
There is something inherently wrong with taxpayers picking up the tab for a private-for-profit enterprise while simultaneously all local decision-making power is removed, Taft said.
“It’s all about (the provincial government) bending the process to get to where they are now. They have bent and changed the rules around this. This is a slap in the face for democracy,” he said.
“It’s like trying to get a round peg into a square hole and you keep changing the hole until something fits.”
The history of the proposal, led by Oberto Oberti of Pheidias Project Management Corp. and Glacier Resorts Ltd, stretches back to 1991 when the first formal approach was made to government. In 2004 the province granted an Environmental Assessment Certificate, even though more than 90 per cent of comments expressed concern about issues ranging from grizzly bear habitat to dubious economics. The certificate, with 195 conditions, was renewed in 2009, and will expire on October 12 unless the province finds there has been substantial progress.
In 2007, the Master Plan was approved, despite local opposition, and controversy reached a flashpoint in 2012 when the province amended the Local Government Act to allow creation of a municipality without residents. The Master Development Agreement was signed later that year and then minister of community sport and cultural development Bill Bennett approved incorporation of Jumbo Glacier Resort Municipality. Former Radium Hot Springs mayor Greg Deck, who is also chair of the Columbia Basin Trust, was appointed by the province as mayor of the fledgling municipality, together with two councillors.
Previously, communities such as Whistler and Sun Peaks were incorporated as mountain resorts, but Jumbo is the only municipality created in a remote wilderness where the sole residents are grizzly bears and mountain goats.
Not only does the council have no accountability to voters, under the municipality’s Letters Patent, it must adhere to terms of the resort’s Master Plan, said Robyn Duncan of Wildsight, a group that has helped lead the Jumbo fight. It raises the spectre of council approving zoning and increasing land values without public input.
The municipality initially received a $260,000 provincial grant and its five-year plan asks for a further $200,000 a year. About $50,000 in federal gas tax money has also flowed to Jumbo.
Deck, who hopes to be re-appointed in November, said the grants are available to all B.C. municipalities and, so far, much of the funding has gone to building a bridge into the municipality.
The green light for the province to create the municipality came from a 2009 East Kootenay Regional District resolution asking the provincial government to incorporate Jumbo as a mountain resort municipality. Taft and the area’s regional director Gerry Wilkie said the close 8-7 vote was swung by directors from outside the Columbia Valley.
“There are five Columbia Valley voters and four out of the five voted against it. People from outside the Columbia Valley outvoted the local directors,” Taft said.
Wilkie lists the vote as one of his biggest disappointments.
“I think the regional district abrogated its responsibility because any development in the regional district requires zoning and zoning requires a public hearing. That’s the democratic process,” he said.
Directors were concerned that hearings would become a circus and the process would take too much staff time, said Wilkie, describing that as a specious argument because contractors could be used.
An attempt to reverse the vote resulted in the same numbers and the regional district then received a letter from the province saying the decision was now written in stone.
Regional district directors did unanimously pass a motion asking that the regional district and First Nations be fully consulted.
“But government didn’t consult us one bit,” Wilkie said.
The precedent-setting process raised alarm signals among other municipalities and a 2012 Union of B.C Municipalities resolution asked government not to create municipalities unless there were 200 residents. In September this year, UBCM unanimously passed a resolution opposing funding for municipalities without residents.
For Taft, it is not only the process that creates a massive headache. There are inevitably costs that will land on Invermere with additional wear and tear on roads and other services, plus provincial priority going to Jumbo access when the area has more pressing needs.
“Who’s going to pay for the road? Who’s going to pay for the infrastructure?” he asked.
Initially, Taft — a businessman who has been mayor for six years and was a councillor for six years before that — supported the project.
But, with a closer look, he became increasingly concerned about the economics and effect on Invermere.
Even more important was the realization that the vast majority of residents were against the project, he said.
There has been no public hearing, because the process was taken out of regional hands, but a public meeting in Invermere showed a large majority adamantly opposed. Several polls have been conducted and a 2008 random survey by McAllister Opinion Research is regarded as one of the most solid. It found 63 per cent of Kootenay residents opposed, 19 per cent in favour and 18 per cent undecided, with a margin of error of 3.2 per cent 19 times out of 20.
“There were the environmental and social costs and having high density in the back-country. People saw it as a real estate scam,” Taft said.
Terms allowing Glacier Resorts to purchase 104 hectares of Crown land for the village site and giving the company access to almost 6,000 hectares of “Controlled Recreation Area” are certainly favourable, apparently because the project fits with the province’s Mountain Resorts Branch policy to encourage new all-seasons resort development in an effort to double tourism revenues by 2015.
Current policy sets the minimum value of undeveloped mountain resort lands at $12,355 per hectare for the first 10 years of resort development, but Jumbo’s agreement is for $6,178 per hectare because the original commitment was made more than 20 years ago under the former pricing policy, said a Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations spokesman.
The rental fee for the 6,000-hectare Controlled Recreation Area is two per cent of gross lift revenues.
“It’s a real estate deal,” retorted Duncan of Wildsight. “The public is just giving away six thousand hectares to a private corporation and funding it through taxpayers’ money.”
It’s also a risky speculation in a remote part of the province, with poor access, at a time when ski hills in less remote areas are already struggling, said Wilkie, who predicts that if the development ever goes ahead it will require government bail-outs.
“In the long run, it is the taxpayers who will pay.”
Next in this series: All questions about the Jumbo Resort lead back to Bill Bennett
Photo credit: Pat Morrow
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