When most of us think of a small town, we think of friendly neighbours and quiet streets -- the type of place where you know almost everyone. I’m privileged to be elected as mayor of Invermere, B.C., which is pretty close to being a perfect small town.
However, about 55 kilometres from Invermere, down rough old logging and mining roads, lies another kind of "small town."
The "small town" of Jumbo, also known as the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, is not home to friendly neighbours or quiet streets. In fact, it is completely empty -- a wilderness with no residents and no buildings.
On Nov. 15, when every other town in B.C. will vote for new municipal leaders, there will be no voting in Jumbo.
How did it come to this?
Glacier Resorts Ltd. has wanted to build a 6,300-bed ski resort on Crown land for 24 years. While the proponents envision a village of condos, shops and hotels and more than 20 ski lifts, many locals like myself oppose a new dense urban development in an area already awash with ski resorts operating below capacity. (A 2008 random survey by McAllister Opinion Research found 63 per cent of Kootenay residents oppose the resort, with 19 per cent in favour and 18 per cent undecided.)
Faced with strong local opposition, the province has tried to fit a round peg into a square hole. Instead of admitting it won't fit, the province has changed the hole until that peg fits.
The only reason there is a "municipality" here in the mountain wilderness is because in 2012, the provincial government amended the Local Government Act to allow the creation of a municipality without residents. Next, the province appointed a mayor and two councillors. And then a provincial order-in-council mandated that the council adhere to the terms of Jumbo Glacier Resort's Master Plan -- not to citizens.
This series of events ruffled many feathers, but what came next was even worse. Jumbo received a $260,000 provincial grant and $50,000 in federal gas tax money.
Why would a "town" with no residents and no services require taxpayer dollars? Well, there are bridges to build and infrastructure to construct before real estate can be sold. Given the Jumbo Glacier Resort is a private development, you'd think the infrastructure would be fully funded by the developer – but not in the case of Jumbo.
Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality has asked for $200,000 a year from the province for the next five years. In its five-year financial plan, the municipality is predicting $0 in tax revenue, $0 in funding from the developer and 100 per cent of funding to come from government grants.
At the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, my motion to oppose provincial funding for towns without residents was adopted unanimously by local politicians from all over our province.
Aside from grasping for taxpayer dollars, the reason Jumbo municipality exists is to circumnavigate a key condition of the resort’s environmental assessment certificate, which dictates that final land use decisions be made by local government. Of course, the intent was for elected, accountable local government to make the decisions, not a puppet appointed council.
Residents of the Columbia Valley want to map their region's own future. The environmental assessment was focused solely on mitigating environmental impacts. The question of whether we want a dense urban development and private real estate speculation in the mountain wilderness has never been posed to our community.
The environmental assessment certificate for the Jumbo resort expired on Oct. 12, unless the province rules that the proponent has made substantial progress. In yet another case of corners being cut, the resort was hastily laying foundations the week before the deadline in a last-minute push to show progress.
Three days before the construction deadline, B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office wrote to Glacier Resorts, saying the company was not in compliance with three pre-construction conditions, primarily relating to water quality and fish habitat monitoring. Last week, a debate at the Legislature raised the question of whether the foundation for a lodge was built in a Class 4 Avalanche Zone.
The big question now is when the province of B.C. will call an end to the farce of the "town" called Jumbo. The cost of failing to act is at least $1.3 million in taxpayer funding, the sell-off of Crown land at bargain basement prices and, most of all, the complete disregard for the basic concept of what democracies are… and what small towns should be.
Gerry Taft is a Columbia Valley businessman and mayor of Invermere.