A controversial residential development proposal in the Lizard Creek area south of Fernie passed third reading at the RDEK board table on Friday morning.
The Galloway Lands plan features 90 single family homes on a 185-hectare property adjacent to the Fernie Alpine Resort, however, it has been criticized by residents and conservation groups concerned about environmental impacts to to wildlife and aquatic species habitat.
The vote passed third reading by a 9-6 margin, with those in favour including Area E Director Jane Walter; Sparwood Mayor David Wilks; Area F Director Susan Clovechok; Canal Flats Mayor Mark Doherty; Radium Mayor Michael Gray; Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick; Area A Director Thomas McDonald; Area G Director Roberta Schnider and Area C Director Rob Gay.
Those opposed included Cranbrook city councillor Norma Blissett; Cranbrook Mayor Wayne Price; Elkford Mayor Steve Fairbairn; Invermere Mayor Al Miller; Fernie Mayor Nic Milligan and Area B Director Stan Doehle.
The latest iteration of the proposal was introduced at the RDEK board table in April, which passed first and second readings in order to get to the public hearing process. In early May, two public hearings were held; an in-person meeting was held in Fernie, while another was held virtually the next day.
Approximately 243 people attended the in-person meeting, which ran over three hours, while a further 148 attended the virtual meeting the following evening.
The RDEK also noted hundreds of letters running the spectrum of support and opposition to the proposal were received by staff.
The Galloway Lands proposal includes 90 single family homes on a 185-hectare parcel which is roughly bordered by Lizard Creek, with proposed access off of Highway 3 and off the north end of Fernie Alpine Resort via Snow Pine Drive.
Reto Barrington, the proponent of the project through Handshake Holdings, has made a number of commitments, according to the RDEK staff report.
Those include adding a wildfire hazard development permit, prohibition of creating residential lots without community servicing, preparing an environmental management plan, with Environmentally Sensitive Area permit application prior to residential lot subdivision, among other agreements.
Additionally, approximately 94 hectares of the property will be transferred to a to-be-determined conservation organization with a mandate to protect the land, while permitting public access for non-motorized recreational use.
The development is expected to proceed in phases based on market demand, at 10-20 residential lots at a time.
Impacts to the environment, whether to the wildlife corridor on the land or concerns with aquatic species in Lizard Creek, were a common theme from those opposed to the development proposal.
The Elk River Alliance noted the importance of Lizard Creek as a spawning habitat for the Westslope Cutthroat Trout, and criticized a expert report commissioned by the proponent that did not consult with the ERA or local experts, while spending only two days in the field.
Additionally, the land serves as quality grizzly bear and ungulate habitat and the proposed development design will likely affect wildlife movement patterns, according to Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist who prepared a report on behalf of Wildsight, Fernie Snow Valley Community Association and the ERA.
The project was also not endorsed by referral agencies, such as Interior Health, City of Fernie, and the provincial environment ministry.
The board voted 9-6 in favour of the development proposal after an hour of discussion around the table, with some directors speaking more than once to emphasize their positions. Some directors immediately signalled their voting intentions, while others were more non-committal until the vote was called.
The discussion centred around two central and somewhat competing themes. At the heart of the issue was a land-use application by a developer for one specific piece of property and the required process and consultation that an applicant must navigate.
Area A Director Thomas McDonald kicked off the discussion by reading a prepared statement and voicing his support for the project.
He said the project is supported by RDEK staff, and strikes a balance between environmental concerns, public access and economic growth.
“Our region must be forward thinking to plan for success now and decades to come,” McDonald said. “That success relies on the RDEK and developers working together in a way that follows best practices, meets important environmental standards, and at the same time, allows for strategic growth and market demand.”
However, there was also vocal public opposition to the proposal that was readily apparent, as directors wrestled with the principles of balancing public input as elected officials — and the optics of out-of-region area directors making localized decisions — against a land-use application from a private land owner.
Director Norma Blissett, who serves as one of the City of Cranbrook representatives, shared her experience attending the public hearing in Fernie and the feedback that resonated with her.
“I was very glad that I attended that public hearing in Fernie because what came out strong and clear — and what I’d like to convey to this board — is the distrust of this board to listen to the people,” Blissett said.
“…There were a number of directors here who spoke about going to public hearing, that we should follow our process, we should follow our procedures, so that means we have to listen to the results of those public hearings. And this has repercussions, not just for the Elk Valley but for the entire regional district, because who’s going to have faith in our board to follow the direction of our public if we ignore it now?”
The Elk Valley contingent of the RDEK board was split, as Area A Thomas McDonald and Sparwood Mayor David Wilks were in favour, while Fernie Mayor Nic Milligan and Elkford Mayor Steve Fairbairn were opposed.
After the vote, Milligan noted in an email to Black Press Media the that the regional district will be responsible for ensuring all the developer commitments are being met, provided the zoning bylaws are adopted.
“As mayor of Fernie I share many of the region’s citizens’ disappointment and frustration,” said Fernie Mayor Nic Milligan. “Fernie is my hometown and I care deeply about its present and its future.
“I am very grateful to every one of the 400 plus people who wrote letters, emails, and who came out to the public hearing for the Galloway rezoning at the invitation of the RDEK.
“It was very clear to me that the people who live here do not want this rezoning to go ahead. It is unfortunate that their deeply-felt concerns did not have more of an impact on my fellow decision makers.”
Other points debated around the table included the Elk Valley’s Official Community Plan amid concerns that it is out of date, while some directors were also wary of the message being sent to potential developers if the project was voted down.