Opinion: Rejection of Wintergreen redevelopment a healthy decision

By Enrique Massot
The County News

The newly-elected council of Rocky View County sided with the public interest when it turned down a large development proposal in the former Wintergreen ski hill.

(Full disclosure: The author of this column lives in the area and might have been impacted by the proposal).

The ruling of the newly-elected council was a welcome departure from previous councils’ decisions that on occasion disregarded sound planning principles, advice from administration and community input.

Approving construction of 300 homes without solving safety, transportation and servicing would have created large liabilities to be eventually shouldered by municipal and provincial taxpayers.

Questions remain about the process the County followed prior to bringing the proposal to council’s consideration.

The Resort of the Canadian Rockies (RCR) proposal tripled the number of houses allowed by the Greater Bragg Creek Area Structure Plan (ASP). However, this major change to the ASP was never put out for public consultation, as directed by the County Plan’s section 28.5. The developer representative at the Nov. 28 public hearing just brushed the ASP aside, calling it “outdated.”

Public consultation, however, would have allowed for community discussion about the proposed increment to residential density and the inclusion of a commercial component in Wintergreen instead of the hamlet as directed by the ASP.

“The municipality needs to…guide the developer and the community towards a solution that fits with the overall vision for the community.” Resident Henk van Klinken.

Instead, public information about the proposal was reduced to three developer-hosted open houses in 2014 and 2015. After that, little information transpired until last November, when the County sent letters – to some area residents only – advising of the Nov. 28 public hearing, with a short deadline to respond.

To top it all, residents only became fully aware of the long list of unresolved issues in the RCR proposal – and the County administration’s recommendation for refusal – when the Nov. 28 meeting agenda was released on Nov. 22, that is, six days before the public hearing on the project.

RCR, on the other hand, did conduct a poorly advertised meeting attended by about 30 area residents on Nov. 23.

As a result, area residents only became aware that the RCR application failed to address the need for a second egress road, a serious safety issue in the Greater Bragg Creek areas west of the Elbow River that includes Wintergreen, six days before the proposal was put in front of council for approval.

In an area where 500 households rely on a single access point through the Balsam Avenue bridge in Bragg Creek and where wildfire risk in some areas is ranked high to extreme, population additions should not be contemplated until a second emergency egress becomes available.

Other pending issues were the upgrading of the two-mile Wintergreen Road connecting the site to the Hamlet of Bragg Creek at unknown cost, as well as upgrades to the local wastewater treatment plant, estimated to cost about $7 million.

On Nov. 28, Council showed goodwill by giving two readings to the proposal, but withholding third reading and giving the proponent two months to come up with solutions to the outstanding issues.

At a Jan. 23 council meeting, however, County administrators confirmed the developer had failed to provide solution to any of the pending matters, which prompted council to turn down the project, in agreement with administration’s recommendation.

Which begs the question: What other result the developer may have expected from such an incomplete application?

Past councils’ decisions and some lobbying around a need for growth at all costs may have given hope of a council’s approval in disregard of issues surrounding the proposal.

An option presented to council proposed 55 amendments to the developer’s plan with the appearance of solving outstanding items. However, the amendments were deferred to a later subdivision stage, where the developer would have been able to challenge each one of them and out of council’s jurisdiction.

Approval, in any event, could have allowed the developer to build 300 homes, sell them and leave behind a costly host of issues such as secondary egress, subdivision egress, sewage infrastructure and stormwater drainage, roads and intersections’ capacity – all of which would have to be solved by the public powers – at taxpayers’ cost.

As experience has proven time and again, it has been so regarding lack of drainage in areas of Bearspaw, Springbank and east Rocky View, as it was when Cochrane Lake began to spill over shore properties.

It will be so too when council finally tackles the issue of $90 million in debt left by the East Rocky View utility infrastructure, built by Rocky View to allow for commercial development in Balzac and Conrich.

It is even so for west and north Bragg Creek, where developers were allowed to build 500 homes with only one egress and without contributing to a now overdue second emergency egress.

Since Jan. 1, a new public notification policy mandates slightly improved circulation areas, which in Wintergreen will require circulation packages to be mailed within half a mile from the subject property, as well as signs notifying of development plans on all roads fronting the subject property.

Improvements such as named above could also allow for more public debate such as town hall meetings rather than the usual open houses that invariably present the developer’s vision and allow only one-on-one conversations in front of neat, often idealized display boards in a divide-and-conquer manner than through a true community visioning exercise.

As Wintergreen resident Henk van Klinken put it after the Jan. 23 decision, Rocky View should take a more active role in the planning of large developments such as proposed by RCR.

“The municipality needs to…guide the developer and the community towards a solution that fits with the overall vision for the community and the available infrastructure,” van Klinken said.

Van Klinken is a Wintergreen resident who raised concerns early in the process, when the developer hosted the first open houses about it.

To be sure, the Greater Bragg Creek Area Structure Plan, approved in 2007, is one of the more advanced planning documents prepared in Rocky View. Its vision, developed with active community participation, aims to concentrate high-density growth in the Hamlet of Bragg Creek, while allowing for different-sized lots in other areas, while keeping an overall low density to protect the area’s rural character.

Failure to understand this vision, coupled with a business plan that did not include the infrastructure requirements to service a proposal of the proposed size led to an inadequate application and its subsequent demise.