Please don’t call it the Bear Mtn Bailout

Bear Mountain resort, near Victoria, BC. Photo mosaic by Pete Rockwell.

March 18, 2009

The public hearing on March 16 was much more civil than other meetings I’ve seen at Langford City Hall, but I still had to lean over the podium and grab the microphone to be heard over all the people shouting at me – not just the audience, but also the chair of the hearing, deputy mayor Denise Blackwell. It’s not easy to deliver a simple five-minute presentation to Langford Council when the pro-development crowd doesn’t agree with you.

I made some enemies that night when I suggested to Blackwell that the best thing she could do to restore Langford Council’s integrity was resign. I added that Mayor Stew Young and Chief Planner Matthew Baldwin should also resign in response to increasing concerns about biased decision-making around Skirt Mountain.

It was the second public hearing for this development proposal. Skirt Mountain – known for thousands of years as Spaet Mountain, and more recently as the home of Bear Mountain Resort – is a bluffy knob rising 340 meters from a fault line next to Goldstream Provincial Park, fifteen kilometers west of Victoria, BC.

Thanks to Len Barrie, the former NHL player turned real estate developer, Skirt Mountain has been “terraformed by mountaintop removal,” according to local environmentalist Ingmar Lee. In April 2007, Lee set up a tree-sit camp to stop construction of the Spencer Road Interchange and protect the remaining garry oaks and arbutus bluffs on the mountainside below Bear Mountain Resort. I helped kick off the tree sit by spending a wet and stormy week camped on a platform high up in the limbs of a big old red cedar.

That cedar and all its neighbours are gone now. Last February, a contingent of more than sixty RCMP special forces arrested the tree sitters and closed the area for three days while machines clearcut the site. Soon after, the city borrowed $10 million from TD Bank on behalf of the developers, and construction on the new interchange lurched forward.

Today the interchange is almost complete, but it leads nowhere. A muddy, impassable track marks the future road up Skirt Mountain to Len Barrie’s house, the golf course, and all the unsold condos at Bear Mountain Resort.

That’s about to change, if the South Skirt Mountain Village developers get their way. They’re planning a mini-city on that rugged slope, with towers six stories high and higher and 2800 condos with a total value of $1.7 billion. Apparently the condos will sell for about $607,000 each. (I did the math.)

It’s bad news for garry oaks, songbirds, owls, woodpeckers, and eagles. Anyone who enjoys fresh air and fresh water or opposes urban sprawl has a stake in this project as well.

Predictably, Langford’s mayor and council are cheerleading the development. In February, local news broadcasts showed Mayor Young enthusing over the construction boom the project would create, followed by footage of Young at the public hearing berating a retired schoolteacher who lives on Florence Lake, next to Skirt Mountain. Local residents’ complaints centred around concerns about damage to the watershed at Florence Lake and loss of wildlife habitat. Their testimony was interrupted by Young’s frequent diatribes against “you people” making “the same complaints time after time.”

Joni Olsen, a band councillor for the Tsartlip First Nation, attended the February hearing to tell Langford Council that the graves of her ancestors are on Skirt Mountain and that development would destroy “this beautiful place.” The city and Bear Mountain Resort have already demolished two culturally-significant caves in the area.

“That’s 8,000 years of history that you guys are going to build on. That’s appalling,” Olsen said. Young let the remarks pass without comment.

The mayor’s bad behaviour is nothing new to city council observers. But the following month brought an unwelcome surprise. On March 12, Langford council voted to apply for federal stimulus money for the road from the interchange to Bear Mountain Resort. Naturally, I wanted to ask them if this was a bailout for Len Barrie.

But as soon as I brought up the subject at the public hearing on March 16, Denise Blackwell shut me down, insisting that I could not speak about the bailout or about Bear Mountain. She said the three projects – Bear Mountain, South Skirt Mountain and the Spencer Road interchange – are not connected. In fact, they are strung together like beads on a string by that muddy track of a road.

The developers of Bear Mountain Resort and South Skirt Mountain are partners in a user-pay Local Service agreement for the Spencer Road Interchange. Remember, back in 2008 Langford Council said the deal would fund the new interchange and taxpayers would pay nothing. Now Langford will try to force taxpayers to fork over millions of dollars for the project.

South Skirt Mountain has its own user-pay agreement. Staff reports say the developers will build the new subdivision’s roads and the interchange as part of a $28 million contribution to the city’s services and amenities. None of this jibes with Langord’s $24.5 million taxpayer-funded grant application. Furthermore, the Community Charter expressly forbids local governments from giving out grants to private companies.

I realize that Langford Council and the developers have compelling reasons for making this project a top priority, regardless of the cost to everyone else. They would be the first to tell us that the interchange and the parkway are crucial for Langford’s future, and taxpayers should be grateful for the opportunity to pay for them. Imagine the alternative – if the developers can’t afford to build the road, the interchange to nowhere would look pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?

But please, don’t call it the Bear Mountain bailout. Denise Blackwell will thank you to stop that kind of talk right now.

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