BANFF – Liricon Capital’s hopes for an aerial gondola from the Banff train station to Mount Norquay ski and sightseeing resort continue to be mired in controversy.
At its meeting on Monday (Sept. 13), town council voted against removing a gondola terminus from the draft area redevelopment plan for the train station lands – even though Parks Canada has said it is unlikely a gondola will be approved under existing laws and policies.
The 3-3 decision drew swift rebuke from Councillor Peter Poole, who said Mayor Corrie DiManno and councillors Brian Standish and Grant Canning clearly went against Parks Canada’s marching orders in support of the developer.
He said two letters from high-ranking Banff National Park officials on Aug. 20 and Sept. 10 to the Town of Banff confirm Parks Canada has rejected two previous proposals amid concerns a gondola and its infrastructure fly in the face of existing legislation and policies.
“Parks has said what their decisions have been on the two proposals already for gondolas and they said a new proposal is unlikely to arrive at a different conclusion,” said Coun. Poole.
“On that basis, the simplest thing for a Town governor to do is to go along with Parks Canada’s direction, and to me, it’s very clear how to follow Parks Canada direction.”
In an Aug. 10 letter to Town Manager Kelly Gibson from acting superintendent Kendra Van Dyk, Parks Canada outlined in no uncertain terms an aerial gondola from the townsite to Norquay did not meet federal laws and policies.
At the request of Liricon, Parks Canada superintendent Dave McDonough wrote a follow-up letter to the Town of Banff on Sept. 13 to clarify Parks Canada’s position on whether or not the federal agency would consider another proposal.
McDonough said every park lessee has the right to submit development proposals or plans to Parks Canada at any time for proposed changes to how the lease is used and/or to the structures on it.
However, he said, any use of the land must conform with the terms and conditions of their lease, which requires alignment with applicable statutes and key policies.
“Proposals that do not conform with the Canada National Parks Act cannot, by law, be approved,” he said.
McDonough said Liricon may submit a future gondola proposal for decision, but noted the federal agency does not require a gondola base be included in the ARP as a precursor to considering any gondola submissions.
If Liricon chooses to submit another proposal, McDonough said it’s important to note that Parks Canada’s detailed feedback provided to Liricon on both the 2018 and 2020 gondola submissions identified concerns with a lack of conformance with key laws and policies.
“Future gondola proposals that do not address the challenges pointed out in those reviews are unlikely to produce a different result,” he said.
McDonough went on to say an ARP which includes infrastructure reliant upon other unapproved developments outside the Town of Banff’s jurisdiction will challenge the entire process.
In particular, he said most of the gondola would be outside the Banff townsite, and therefore, the greatest policy and environmental implications are likely to be outside of the municipality.
“This may mean that Parks Canada will not be in a position to make a determination on the significance of environmental impacts, nor prescribe mitigations for the ARP,” he said.
“As we understand our policies and obligations, both of these would be required for the minister to consider approval.”
Jan and Adam Waterous, who own the Mount Norquay ski resort, also hold the lease through their personal holding company Liricon Capital for about 17.4 hectares of Canadian Pacific railway lands on both the south and north sides of the train tracks in Banff.
The couple’s overarching vision is to turn the dilapidated train station lands into an multi-modal transit hub, including the return of passenger rail from Calgary International Airport to the Banff train station.
The draft ARP for the lands, which is still under development, also calls for eating and drinking establishments, retail, medium-density residential housing, an amphitheatre for concerts and special events, and more than 1,000 parking spaces on both sides of the train tracks.
A key element of the Waterous’ vision in the ARP – which must be approved by Banff town council because the train station lands sit inside the Town of Banff boundary – is a gondola terminus connecting the townsite to the base of the Norquay ski resort.
Jan said McDonough’s Sept. 10 letter to the Town of Banff makes it very clear Parks Canada will consider a second proposal, noting there is a clear regulatory path to do so should certain issues be addressed.
She said McDonough’s letter also confirmed the federal agency had provided feedback on a draft second gondola proposal.
“Presumably Parks Canada would not have provided feedback if it would not consider a second proposal,” she said.
The 2010 management plan for Banff National Park allowed for a feasibility study of an aerial gondola between the townsite and Mount Norquay to provide new visitor opportunities while reducing human activity in the Cascade wildlife corridor.
The draft 2020 management plan is silent on the gondola.
In her letter to the Town of Banff, Parks Canada’s Van Dyk said in both of Liricon’s gondola proposals, there were concerns around conformance with key laws and policies pertaining to commercial development and growth, use of public lands, and ski area management.
“Location of gondola infrastructure on parklands necessitating a change in ski area boundaries cannot, by statute, be permitted,” Van Dyk wrote.
“Additionally, and for clarity, Parks Canada has not suggested or specified to Liricon that a gondola base must be included in the ARP.”
Jan argues these comments by Van Dyk potentially can be misleading if there is no understanding of the project review processes under the 2006 ski area management guidelines and the 2011 Norquay site guidelines.
She took particular issue with the statement indicating the location of gondola infrastructure on park lands necessitating a change in ski area boundaries can’t be permitted by law.
This statement, she said, omits the fact that ski area boundaries can be changed if a project provides ecological benefits as specified under the ski area management guidelines, the regulations which govern all ski areas in Banff National Park.
Specifically, Jan pointed to the provision that “ski area expansion into undeveloped areas, un-skied terrain and un-serviced terrain can only be considered if there are substantial environmental gains”.
“Only by making a formal second gondola proposal which will include, among other things, the science and data on the substantial environmental gains, will Parks Canada be in a position to conduct a substantive review to determine if the proposal achieves substantial environmental gains,” she said.
In addition, Jan said including a gondola terminus in an ARP gives council the benefit of understanding the transportation impacts of Liricon’s entire project for a transit hub prior to approving the ARP should Parks Canada approve a gondola at some point in the future.
“Of course, should Norquay make a second gondola proposal and Parks Canada ultimately decide not to approve such proposal, then the gondola terminus being included in the ARP will be removed,” she said.
Mayor Corrie DiManno wanted the gondola terminus to remain at this stage of the game.
She said council approved the terms of reference for the ARP in 2019 and the developer has been working on this since.
“It’s nearly complete now and I think it is hard to remove something that they have already put into it,” she said,
DiManno pointed to Parks Canada’s letter from Van Dyk, which indicated Parks wanted to see the ARP before it went public.
“I would be happy for administration to do that because it seems to me that the developer and Parks Canada are still discussing elements that would be in this ARP, namely the gondola, and that’s not resolved yet,” she said.
“It gets tricky because I feel like in the second letter (McDonough’s letter), it seems like it might be unlikely to proceed unless some of these issues are addressed by the developer – but again, I feel that’s Parks Canada’s decision.”
Coun. Poole said it is part of a councillor’s role to make sure Banff retains its municipal planning authority in abiding by Parks Canada’s decisions, noting authority can be taken away with notice under the incorporation agreement.
Disappointed at the way the vote went, Coun, Poole added two of three who voted against reconsidering the gondola terminus in the ARP are running for mayor in the Oct. 18 municipal election – DiManno and Standish.
“Either they read Parks Canada’s letters and understand them and still voted in favour of an influential business, or they’re not able to read these letters adequately,” he said.
“I am concerned that we would have as a future leader in our town somebody who is independent and capable to understand the legal relationships between our independent municipality within our national park structure,” he added.
“I like the candidates personally and I admire a lot of their qualities, but I am just thinking about this from a governance perspective and I want an independent, authoritative voice running our town.”
Councillor Chip Olver wanted to revisit the issue.
“Given all the correspondence we’ve received – specifically the two letter from Parks in recent months – most of this development is outside the town boundaries,” she said.
“I think Parks should decide whether or not a gondola is appropriate before the Town considers a gondola terminus station.”
Coun. Grant Canning said he wasn’t interested in revisiting the ARP, instead wanting to thank Liricon for all it has done so far in trying to redevelop the railway lands “which I think are absolutely tremendous for the community.”
He said it appears to have been newspaper articles and media reports that were the catalyst for the recent conversation around removing the gondola terminus from the ARP, which then grew to include two letters from Parks Canada.
He said the letters from Van Dyk and McDonough created more confusion, rather clarity for him.
“I don’t think we should be making policy decisions based upon media reports, based upon individual letters that we receive,” he said, noting they should be based on policy documents, including the national park management plan.
“I personally don’t see the need to remove it right now. I think we have so much ahead of us as it relates to this process.”
Following Monday’s council meeting, Parks Canada did not want to wade into the debate on council’s discussion or the outcome.
However, a written statement to the Outlook said Parks Canada’s position on a future gondola proposal, the process used to evaluate them, and the relationship of any potential gondola proposal to the contents of the ARP are outlined in the two letters to the Town.
“It is Parks Canada’s position that its policies on limits to commercial development and ski area management are fundamental to protecting the ecological integrity of Banff National Park and to ensure that the park is preserved now and for future generations,” according to the statement.