The Bull of Bear Mountain

Ride along with Len Barrie in his white Cadillac Escalade SUV as the Vancouver Island mega-developer puts the hammer down on First Nations, environmentalists, and local government. Required reading.

The Bull and the Bear

Lyle Jenish
Report on Business Magazine
Globe and Mail, March 28, 2008

In his quest to build the massive Bear Mountain resort—the largest planned development in Vancouver Island history—former NHLer Len Barrie has elbowed past the opposition. He’s also made a mountain of money for his investors, including an all-star roster of his hockey pals.

Even six years after retiring from the NHL, Len Barrie still sports the hockey do—his shaggy blond hair is just long enough to peek out from under the back of a helmet. And though he’s now the developer behind the largest planned community in Western Canada, he still has a fondness for locker-room couture: Barrie strolls into his regular Tuesday meeting on a recent morning in flip-flops, cargo shorts and a Lululemon T-shirt, his hair still wet from a post-workout shower.

As he takes his place at the head of the table, he exchanges barbs with his lieutenants.

“We dug up a bunch of arrowheads for you,” one engineer shoots back.

Then it’s down to business. As Barrie slumps in his chair, Les Bjola, his development manager and de facto deputy, launches into an update of a proposed interchange for the Trans-Canada Highway that will lead to Barrie’s Whistler-esque Bear Mountain resort, 20 minutes northwest of Victoria. The company is waiting on an environmental and archeological assessment that will determine whether the new road is feasible—there’s concern it will upset the local ecology and plow through sacred First Nations sites (hence the arrowhead jab). To protest the proposed new interchange, activists have been occupying tree-borne platforms along the route since April, 2007.

This is just the latest showdown in Bear Mountain’s six-year history. When it’s finally complete, Barrie’s $2.4-billion complex will encompass 1,300 acres and include more than 5,000 residential units (a mix of single-family homes, condos and townhouses), more than 600,000 square feet of commercial space, plus two golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus.

So far, the former NHLer — and the project’s majority shareholder — has sold more than half a billion dollars worth of real estate. (Residential prices range from $250,000 for a 5,500-square-foot lot to $2.5 million for a two-acre estate, sans house.) Meanwhile, Bear Mountain Village is filling up with bars, restaurants and hotels. The winding approach to the 156-room Westin Bear Mountain Victoria Golf Resort & Spa is lined with a high-end sushi bar, the Jack’s Place pub (named in honour of Nicklaus), the as-yet-to-be-completed Bear Mountain Village Market, and a spindly collection of construction cranes.

All of which makes Barrie’s investors, including a roster of NHL players past and present, very happy (they’ve put $230 million into the project). “It’s the most audacious development on Vancouver Island,” says builder Fraser McColl. “I mean, how can you not be impressed by what has happened?” McColl, who moved to Bear Mountain during the early development phase, is building the Stonehaven, a four-storey condo complex on the Mountain golf course. “Most people love it or hate it,” he says. As for Barrie himself, McColl has this to say: “Obviously Len is the guiding spirit, and no one else could have pulled off what he has. Most people thought it would never happen. Give Barrie credit: He didn’t listen to anyone else.”

To his fans, Barrie is among the vanguard of Western Canada’s brash and belligerent new bourgeoisie: Success is the only option; opposition be damned. To his opponents, he’s the Beelzebub of Bear Mountain, a man bent on laying waste to the island’s pristine wilderness, spreading the brimstone of condos, fairways and big-box plazas.

“The bear has come over the mountain, and look what he has done,” says Vicky Husband, the grande dame of Canada’s conservation movement and a 40-year resident of the tiny Highlands district into which Bear Mountain is expanding. Husband says Barrie has stopped at nothing to move the development forward. “It has split the community asunder,” she says.

This is not the only developer-versus-conservationist battle that’s being waged in B.C., but it’s by far the largest. Since 2002, when Barrie started knocking down trees in the hills northwest of Victoria, he has enraged environmentalists, town councillors, local residents and aboriginal groups—and done it with a certain amount of glee. “What you see is what you get,” says Barrie. “I call a spade a spade, and if you don’t like it, who cares? I have lots of friends.”

Now, Barrie is embarking on his second project. In mid-2007, he paid $2.1 million for a chunk of oceanfront property (including a marina) near Mill Bay, 40 kilometres north of Victoria. “The Victoria International Airport is right across the Saanich Inlet,” says Barrie, standing on the pebbly foreshore of Mill Bay, pointing east. “We’ll also expand the marina, which means Americans can dock here and easily fly out.”

The transformation of this leafy hillside sprinkled with dowdy houses into a hopping condo development is bound to cause trouble—especially if Barrie uses the same tactics he took to Bear Mountain. “Generally, a business must look out for its shareholders,” says Bob McMinn, a Highlands resident and one of Barrie’s most vocal opponents. “They do this with the soft soap or with the hammer. Bear Mountain brought the hammer.”

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