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Olympian Fight over Sea-to-Sky Fix

West Vancouver residents fear the provincial government may betray its 'Green Games' commitment. Leading the revolt: the mayor and some staunch B.C. Liberals.

By Claudia Cornwall 15 Jul 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The road to the 2010 Olympics runs through West Vancouver, and that's creating a bumpy ride for Liberal Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon.  He finds himself facing a tough decision about whether to blast an expensive tunnel along the Sea to Sky Highway or go with a cheaper bypass that locals angrily oppose.

"If push comes to shove and they go ahead" with the bypass, says Michael Evans, a retired schoolteacher and resident of West Vancouver, "we will be up there laying our bodies in front of the bulldozers."

Two options for upgrading the critical route to the Whistler-based Olympic events are currently on the table--either a new stretch of 4-lane highway that would run over Eagle Bluffs, by-pass Horsehoe Bay and rejoin Highway 99 near Lion's Bay or a tunnel.  The tunnel would preserve a sensitive and unique eco-system that encompasses an important wetland with two streams.

Evans says, "All the names in the area, 'Gleneagle, Eagle Harbour, Eagle Bluffs, Eagle Island' were chosen because of the preponderance of eagles. They're there because of the richness of the flora and fauna which owe their presence to the wetlands.  You're not going to get that if you blast a highway through."

Mayor: Review flawed

Ron Wood, the mayor of West Vancouver, says that he has received hundreds of letters and emails opposing the highway.  Furthermore, he says that when the municipality conducted a scientific poll, two/thirds of the residents favoured the tunnel, even if it would cost more. Nevertheless, he fears that the province has decided on the highway.  Provincial estimates put the cost of the tunnel at $150 million, the highway at $100 million.

A joint provincial federal environmental review has given the green light to either proposal.  Mayor Wood believes, however, that the review was badly flawed. On June 14, he wrote to David Anderson in his role as federal Minister of the Environment and asked Anderson to review the review.  "We feel Anderson is far more environmentally concerned than some members of his staff who appear to be taking direction from the province. It's very peculiar," Wood told The Tyee.

On July 12, the municipality went further, asking the federal court of Canada to overturn the government's decision to grant environmental approval.  Bruce McArthur, the co-chair of the Western Residents Association that is also weighing in on the controversy, agrees with the municipality's actions.  He says, "If a business, a company, a pulp mill, or a mine asks for an environmental assessment, the provincial body asks for every detail right up to where the nuts and bolts came from. Yet it appears that when the government is doing it for themselves, as their own assessment, it can be so loose.  It seems there's a double standard there." 

'How is it going to play?'

"I was 100 percent supportive of the Olympics," said Michael Evans. "But is it really in keeping with the promise Gordon Campbell made that this would be the greenest games ever that they blast through 49 acres of a very unique rare eco system?  How is it going to play internationally when B.C. bulldozers are seen ripping into these stands of arbutus in the name of the Olympics?" 

If West Vancouver has no success in the courts, Evans plans to write to the International Olympic Committee. He cites the Nagano Declaration, signed in 2001 at the IOC Conference on Sports and the Environment, which urged "all members of the Olympic Movement, all participants in sport and enterprises associated with sport to continue and intensify their efforts in implementing environmental, economic and social sustainability in all of their policies and activities."

Mayor Wood also believes that the province's estimates are wrong.  In particular, he takes issue with the $10 million dollar price tag on the cost of expropriating the land needed for the highway.  He thinks the cost would easily run five times that.  Land does not need to be expropriated for the tunnel and so when you factor that in, much of the price difference between the two options is erased.  To prove his point, Wood has ordered an independent assessment of the land values.

When The Tyee contacted the owners of the land in question, British Pacific Properties, they declined to comment.

Third option?

John Moonen is another West Vancouver resident who has been vocal about the controversy.  He is a B.C. Liberal, a campaign manager in the last election, and also supported the Olympic bid.  He says, carefully, "I wouldn't characterize what I'm doing as lobbying against the highway.  Instead, I'm supporting other options."

Moonen favours the tunnel or a third option which has had little attention so far--fixing the existing road.   The environmental impact would be minimal and the cost much less--$50 million.  Wood also likes this approach.  "It's logical to fix the existing road, and save 100 million dollars for taxpayers of B.C."

The decision may hinge on how the land for a highway expansion is valued. The province sets the figure at $21 million, based on an independent appraiser's report released July 14. Wood puts the value at more than double: $58 million according to municipal assessments. A higher value on the land makes a stronger argument for going with the tunnel approach, and Wood told the CBC the province's $21 million figure is dubious because "the appraiser has been directed by the province as how to come up with the numbers that we feel that the province wanted to come up with."

Transportation minister Falcon fired back that the government stands behind the appraiser's report and termed Wood's charge "frankly unbelievable."

The decision is now with Falcon. Moonen says, "I think that when he properly examines all the numbers, considers all the factors, assesses the environmental impact, hears the community, he'll make the right decision. As an active Liberal, I'm quite confident that he's going to make the right decision."

Claudia Cornwall is a West Vancouver based author and journalist.  [Tyee]

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