The conservation organization that formerly owned the base property for the Sea to Sky Gondola project in Squamish has come out against the proponent's proposal to remove land from Stawamus Chief Provincial Park.
This week, the Land Conservancy of British Columbia issued a public statement saying it "never anticipated" that B.C. Parks would consider taking 2.36 hectares out of the park when it sold the property.
"The covenant that TLC placed on the land will prevent this gondola, unless BC Parks gives permission to the developer," the Victoria-based land trust says in the statement released on Thursday (April 5). "Taking land out of this park or any other provincial park is not something that TLC would or does support, but it is also not something that can be stopped except by BC Parks or the Minister refusing to compromise the integrity of this Class A Provincial Park."
According to Sea to Sky Gondola Corporation principal David Greenfield, B.C. Parks staff are supporting the Squamish-based company's application, filed in December, to change the boundaries of the Chief park.
On Thursday, Greenfield confirmed to the Straight that real-estate developer Michael Hutchison, chair of the Whistler Housing Authority, is a Sea to Sky director and financial partner.
In March, Greenfield told the Straight that Sea to Sky had become the “beneficial owner” of the base property through a purchase by a numbered company.
It was Hutchison that TLC dealt with when it sold the 2.5-hectare property, a former gravel pit, on February 8 for $2 million.
When the Straight informed TLC founder and executive director Bill Turner in March about Sea to Sky's park-boundary-adjustment application, he sounded taken aback.
"Well, I wouldn’t want them to be doing that," Turner said at the time. "But that would be an issue for B.C. Parks to deal with. We can’t control that with our covenant. I guess if B.C. Parks agreed, I guess that’s up to B.C. Parks. I wasn’t aware that they were going to try and remove a corridor there at all."
Turner noted in March that the covenant on the property prohibits the owner from using it for a gondola that runs up the Chief or ends in Stawamus Chief or Shannon Falls provincial park.
While the Sea to Sky Gondola would run through the Chief park, both its planned lower and upper terminals lie outside the park. The base property is located along Highway 99 between the Chief and Shannon Falls, and the top would sit on Crown land on the wooded ridge northwest of Mount Habrich.
"TLC sold the site to a business man in Squamish with a covenant upon it to prevent the property from being used as a gondola to travel up the face of the Chief or terminating in either provincial park," TLC's statement says. "Currently, another proposal has been brought forward to build a gondola from the gravel pit site and into the backcountry over and beyond the provincial parks. The proponent of this current gondola initiative is dealing with the person who purchased the site from TLC. TLC does not have a connection to this gondola proponent. It appears that the gondola project has found a way to avoid the covenant."
In its statement, TLC recalls the recent history of the property, which it acquired for $900,000 in the wake of a defeated 2004 proposal to build a gondola to the top of the Chief’s Second Peak.
"In 2005, TLC purchased a six acre property previously used as a gravel pit along Sea to Sky Highway, south of Squamish and adjacent to the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls Provincial Parks," TLC states. "This property was purchased to use in negotiations concerning adding an additional piece of land (known to the climbing community as the Malamute) to the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, to prevent a gondola up the Stawamus Chief, and to facilitate the construction of vehicle access to the provincial parks. The negotiations to protect the Malamute were successful, but the gravel pit site did not need to be traded. The parking access issues were also resolved by BC Parks without using the property. In addition, BC Parks lacked the necessary funds for purchase. TLC then worked for almost two years to reach a zoning solution with the District of Squamish which would have allowed a low profile, green development of the site. As there was no positive response from the District, TLC moved to put the site up for sale."
The planned gondola corridor through the Chief park measures 1.18 kilometres long and 20 metres wide. Sea to Sky would build seven of 15 gondola towers in the right of way, which would be redesignated from Class A parkland to a protected area.
Removing land from the Chief park requires the approval of the B.C. environment minister, cabinet, and legislative assembly.
In addition to TLC, environmentalists with the Sierra Club B.C. and the Wilderness Committee have expressed concern about Sea to Sky’s application to alter the boundaries of the park. An ad hoc group called Friends of the Squamish Chief has formed to fight the gondola project.
On February 7, District of Squamish council gave final approval to rezoning the base property and amending the official community plan to allow development of the lower terminal.
On March 26, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District board of directors granted second reading to rezoning and official-community-plan-amendment bylaws needed for the gondola’s top terminal.
The SLRD board has scheduled a public hearing for the Britannia Beach Community Centre (60 Copper Drive) on April 19, starting at 7 p.m.