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Big Local Opposition to Jumbo Given Puny Weight

Citizens rallying against developments don’t count for much in official decision-making, indicates a key government report recommending the Jumbo resort project.

Bill Metcalfe 20 Oct
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Now that B.C.’s government has issued the green light for the Jumbo Glacier Resort, a key government report raises the question of whether local citizens’ opinions, even when invited and tallied by authorities, are given weight in Victoria.

The Jumbo Glacier Project Assessment Report by B.C.’s Economic Assessment Office counted nearly 6,000 comments from citizens in the Kootenay region, over 90 percent of them opposed to the project. The report says such comments don’t represent reliable data compared to scientific polling.

In a spring meeting, the former head of the EAO further revealed ways in which his office discounts certain citizens’ opinions -- those conveyed in form letters, for example, or those deemed lacking in specifics.

The Project Assessment Report, commissioned to form the basis of the government’s decision on Jumbo, noted that similar official efforts to elicit citizen views on major developments commonly draw zero comments in support.

Report went to trio of ministers

The report resulted from a year of study and public consultations by the EAO, and years of reports and controversy before that, going back to 1991. It was delivered on August 3 to Minister of Sustainable Resource Management George Abbott, Minister of Small Business and Economic Development John Les, and Minister of Water, Land, and Air Protection Bill Barisoff.

Based on the Project Assessment Report, the trio of ministers issued their support for the resort on October 14.  Jumbo Glacier is at the head of Jumbo Creek in the Purcell Mountains north of Nelson and West of Invermere. The completed project would consist of a village of condos, chalets, shops, and hotels with thousands of guests and residents. It would offer expensive year-round skiing on several nearby glaciers. The $450 million project is promoted by Vancouver developer Oberto Oberti for Glacier Resorts Ltd, which is backed by Japanese investors.

Appendix C to the Project Assessment Report gives a breakdown of written comments about the project received by the government. In the 60-day period in the spring of 2004 in which the public was asked to comment on Glacier Resorts’ project proposal, the EAO received 5,839 comments by mail, email, postcard, and on comment sheets provided at the Open Houses held in Nelson and Invermere. 91 per cent of the comments were against the project.

Consistent local opposition

The document also reports on written comments received before the 2004 comment period, going well back into the early nineties. Of the hundreds of comments received then, over 90 per cent were against.

The EAO received thousands of names on petitions also, but they counted each petition as one response. For example, 2005 signatures collected by the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society in 1996 were counted as one comment in opposition to the project.

Of the 5839 responses given in the 60-day response period in the spring of 2004, 14 per cent were from the rest of B.C. outside the Kootenays, 20 per cent were from the East Kootenay, 30 per cent from the West Kootenay, and 36 per cent from the rest of Canada and the world. The area with the highest percentage of responses in favour of the project was the East Kootenay, with 39 per cent.

The community closest to the proposed project is Invermere, population 2858. Only 15 per cent of that population, or 432 people, sent a written opinion to the EAO, and among that group, 86 per cent were opposed. The Invermere Council opposed the project by a vote of 3-2.

Opponents of the project have consistently reminded the government of the apparently high level of opposition. Here’s what the EAO’s Project Assessment Report says about that: “The number of submissions that express public support or opposition should not be considered to represent polling or survey data. Such data has no statistical validity or measurable levels of confidence associated with the degree of project acceptability”.

The Project Assessment Report also lets it slip that the EAO does not normally receive any mail in favour of projects under consideration. The only people who write are those opposed. In other words, the 91 per cent opposition to Jumbo is a relatively low number, from the EAO’s standpoint. (Seen in this light, 9 per cent in favour could indicate a project that’s relatively popular with the public.)

Litmus tests for citizens’ submissions

During the Open House hosted by the EAO in Nelson in March, 2004, then-EAO head Martyn Glassman explained the government’s approach: Any opinion that was sent on a form-letter, especially an email form letter, was not taken very seriously. Also, a letter sent within the 60-day comment period which did not specifically respond to identified items in Glacier Resorts Ltd.’s project proposal (which is what the public was asked to do) was taken less seriously. In other words, if a letter just expressed opposition without an indication that the writer had read the developer’s proposal, it had diminished value.

Opponents to the project have expressed concerns about the economic feasibility of the project, effects on grizzly populations, global warming and integrity of glaciers, water quality, adequacy of groundwater supply, waste management, effects on a local heli-ski tenure, and cost to taxpayers.

These are all addressed in the report, along with confidence that the proponents have shown they will be able to deal with them.

195 conditions on project

In fact the Project Assessment Report contains 195 conditions the developer has to meet, covering all of these areas of concern. For example, there are 31 recommendations about relations with First Nations (interpretive centres, employment opportunities for First Nations….); 45 about wildlife including grizzlies (habitat protection, bear studies, preserving riparian areas, monitoring populations of a rare chipmunk….); glacier management (no salt or icing compounds….).

More conditions address avalanche control, wildfire control, water management, trail management, air quality, and more.

There is also an attempt to address the global warming that opponents say will kill off ski resorts in North America soon and which the Jumbo developers say won’t get Jumbo until much later because it’s at a higher altitude than the rest. The Report requires a Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, including limiting the construction and use of fireplaces and the use of energy efficient building standards.

“They don’t mention the greenhouse gas emissions from the jets that carry the skiers from Europe to Jumbo,” said one environmentalist in response to this.

The report does not stipulate where extra government resources will be found to monitor whether the many conditions in the report are being met.

‘Scientifically incompetent’

"A massive environmental impact assessment has terminated in a decision that is scientifically incompetent," says Anne Sherrod, Chair of the Valhalla Wilderness Society.

"The EAO has simply gone down the list of potential impacts and used a giant bottle of good environmental housekeeping rhetoric to sanitize them all. The result is a miraculous town that will appear in the wilderness, host 737,000 visitors a year, and have no serious environmental impacts, not even on grizzly bears. It's like saying they're going to walk on water. Most people on the street know that can't happen."

The EAO approval does not mean construction will begin right away.

Now the developers have to apply to Land and Water B.C. (a B.C. Crown Corporation) for a Master Plan Agreement. This will involve many meetings with many ministries and stakeholders, and public input. The discussions leading to the Master Plan Agreement, according to Bill Irwin of Land and Water B.C., is about infrastructure and the phasing of construction. It is about how the development will proceed, not whether it will proceed.

As an example of what he means by “phasing”, Irwin explained that the developers will have to build a certain amount of infrastructure (such as ski lifts) before they will be allowed to build any hotels or condos. 

That process could take six months to a year, according to Irwin.

Zoning decisions ahead

After the Master Plan Agreement is in place, the land has to be re-zoned. That’s the job of the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK), and it takes the responsibility for the approval of the project out of the hands of the provincial government and gives it to local government which is not accountable to people in the West Kootenay or anywhere else.

Jumbo Glacier Resorts has floated some ideas about applying for the special status of Resort Municipality, which would allow circumvention of RDEK zoning and regulations. Whistler is the only such municipality in the province at the moment and the legislation is in place to create more. But it appears that there must already be a population of 500 permanent residents in the resort for that to be allowable under law.

It’s unclear how long it would take the RDEK to re-zone (or decide not to re-zone) the area, but that body can certainly expect more attention and pressure than usual in the next year or so, from the public and the media.

Foregone conclusion last spring?

In March, a 700-person demonstration walked through downtown Nelson to the hotel where the EAO Open House was being held. Inside the Open House, meanwhile, hundreds of citizens, some of them trained in science or economics, engaging Oberto Oberti and government officials in detailed discussions, technical and philosophical, about Jumbo. Very few were in favour of the project. While many were elated at the large turnout at the Open House, others expressed dejected resignation because they thought it a forgone conclusion that the project would go ahead regardless of the size or content of the opposition.

The provincial government has stated that tourist resort development is a priority, to offset the shrinking resource extraction economy.

Last year, Premier Campbell appointed MLA Sandy Santori as Minister of State for Resort Development. “My job is to be an advocate for resort development,” Mr. Santori said the day after he was appointed.

The Jumbo decision also marks the first time an economic minister (John Les, of Small Business and Economic Development) has been directly involved as a decision-maker in an environmental issue.

Read the Jumbo Glacier Project Assessment Report.

Bill Metcalfe, host of Nelson Before Nine on Kootenay Co-op Radio (KCR) , contributes regularly to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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