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Three Sisters Mountain Village area structure plans set for first reading Feb. 9

The submission of the final two area structure plans from developer Three Sisters Mountain Village will likely result in a contentious community debate about what has been proposed for Canmore council to consider over the next several months.

CANMORE – Two new area structure plans for developer Three Sisters Mountain Village will be in front of Canmore council for first reading on Feb. 9.

As statutory planning documents, the area structure plans (ASP) require a public hearing and three readings by council in order to be approved. 

The plans set out the vision for development for the Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek areas. According to Three Sisters Mountain Village (TSMV) director of strategy and development Chris Ollenberger it has taken the developer more than seven years to reach this point.

"It has been a long process to get here for the team," Ollenberger said. "It is a big milestone and I think 2020 was actually a very big year for TSMV. 

"We were able, with the Town of Canmore, to collaboratively update the undermining regulations and have a new set of guidelines that learned from the last 20 years of experience in Three Sisters. 

"We were able to align the undermining reports and planning processes. We were successful in providing a wildlife corridor that is an average 600-metres wide in the Smith Creek area." 

Last February, the provincial government announced it had approved the proposed alignment for the final wildlife corridor required from TSMV as was required under the 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) decision that granted the company development approvals. 

The decision was not without controversy. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, for example, questioned the science used to determine the alignment, width and slopes within the corridor. They called on the corridor to meet the standards set out in the Bow Corridor Ecosystem Advisory Group's (BCEAG) wildlife corridor and habitat patch guidelines.

However, the developer is not required to abide by the standards set of in the BCEAG guidelines, but instead must meet the requirements for the corridor set out in the NRCB decision. 

While the provincial government makes decisions around corridors, council is being asked to approve a series of mitigations with respect to how wildlife movement and human use is managed on TSMV lands. That includes a proposal for a wildlife fence along the perimeter of the two areas – Smith Creek and Three Sisters Village. 

The ASPs also set out high-level land use concepts for development, including residential and commercial uses, as well as the layout of the roads within each subdivision. It addresses planning for open spaces, transportation, affordable housing and utilities. 

Ollenberger said the ASPs have been created to reflect Canmore's Municipal Development Plan, Land Use Bylaw and other guiding documents accepted by council, like the climate change action plan. He said when it comes to reducing the use of private automobiles in the future, the ASPs have incorporated sustainable alternative travel modes.

It will be a contentious decision for council. While Mayor John Borrowman could not comment on what is proposed within the ASPs, as it is a future decision of council, he did speak to some important considerations due to the fact the provincial government has roles and responsibilities when it comes to development in TSMV. 

While some have called on council to not consider an application of this significance during the pandemic, Borrowman said council and the municipality have a legal obligation to process all development applications within legislated timelines. 

"All of Three Sisters lands are private lands and have been since long before I was here and private landowners have a right in law to make an application for proposed development on their lands," he added. "The Three Sisters lands have been subject to many processes that have helped define the overarching vision for development on those lands.

"People should be familiar with everything that goes back to the mid-1990s, or even earlier." 

There is already an ASP for the resort centre approved in 2004; however, it included a second golf course as a recreational amenity. 

After the current ownership group purchased the company out of receivership in 2013, it decided to not proceed with a second golf course. The lands proposed for the golf course are undermined, as are other areas throughout Three Sisters overall.

The location and risk of undermining has been a significant concern for many in the community, noted Borrowman. However, the regulations and liability for development on undermined land is the responsibility of the provincial government.

"The province has been quite involved with these lands since the beginning," he said. "One of the things the province has done over the decades is approve the undermining regulations [in the Municipal Government Act].

"It is quite clear in the regulations that development approval on the undermined lands is subject to these regulations and it supercedes municipal authority.

"We certainly have to pay attention to some of the issues associated to development on undermined land, but we do not have full autonomy." 

He said development on undermined lands can be approved, but are subject to the provincial regulations. 

Another contentious issue for the community is the ecological impact of the development on wildlife and whether or not the designated wildlife corridors are adequate. 

The mayor noted this is also an area of provincial jurisdiction; however, council is empowered to look at the suite of wildlife mitigations proposed outside the corridor and assess whether they will help address the issue of connectivity and reduce human wildlife conflicts.

"Wildlife corridors are outside the jurisdiction of the Town of Canmore," he said. "We have no ability to influence directly the definition or establishment of the corridors. That is a provincial role." 

What Canmore council gets to decide is whether or not what is proposed for development outside the corridors is appropriate and meets the expectations set out in the NRCB decision, as well as the MDP, LUB and other guiding documents. 

"I have always felt ... the community should be able to discuss and approve development that meets our community needs on land that is outside the corridor," he said. "I am not opposed to development. I support responsible and well-considered development. 

"We have needs in our community and one need identified is housing and affordable housing; housing that benefits the people living and working in Canmore.

"If we simply say no more development period, there will be no more housing inventory that average people will be able to get into." 

Ollenberger said over the fall and winter the company has been engaging the community in a conversation about what was being considered for submission to the municipality.

"We put out draft ASPs and technical reports in September and then we took the next month to get all that feedback and we had a lot of good feedback," he said.

"We incorporated that feedback into the submission materials." 

Changes in the submitted ASPs compared to the draft versions include updates to the bonusing tables to better reflect commitments around addressing climate change, and additional affordable housing commitments. 

"It is also important to realize that an ASP is a high level framework," he said. "It does not replace the building code, but it certainly provides a pathway such that future builders and developers in this area will have a path to take action on the climate change plan."  

Ollenberger added clarifications were made regarding mitigation around wildlife monitoring and the environmental impact statement. 

All feedback received is included in a What We Heard report published on the TSMV's website as well. Ollenberger said usually the company would do in-person feedback sessions, but with COVID, had to rely on online forums and submissions. 

"I think we had really good feedback because people were willing to participate virtually and write down their thoughts," he said. 

Tanya Foubert

About the Author: Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert started as a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2006. She won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best news story for her coverage of the 2013 flood. In December 2018, she became editor of the Outlook.
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