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Three Sisters Mountain Village public hearing concludes as council questions developer, staff

The public hearing for the Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek area structure plans wrapped up, as Canmore council were able to question both the developers and staff on the proposed development.

CANMORE – The public hearing for the Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek area structure plans wrapped up this week, as Canmore council was able to question both the developers and staff on the proposed development.

Elected officials grilled 12 different people who led the reports on the proposed ASPs for six hours. Council also asked questions of staff for a further 90 minutes.

The delegation aspect of the public hearing finished March 16, but with council not meeting with the applicant and staff, it gave people another week to pour in written submissions. The Town received 1,898 written submissions, the majority of which were opposed.

Six days of more than 200 delegates spanning about 44 hours was also heard by Canmore council.

The hearing discussed all aspects of the proposals, but a focus on affordable housing, undermining, wildlife implications and the risk of wildfire were highlighted.

All aspects of the proposals generated questions, but those of First Nations engagement and the 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board’s (NRCB) decision that is ultimately leading to a council vote, were among the priority of council.

Representatives for TSMV said a cultural assessment was completed in the 1992 NRCB decision, but more could be done in engagement.

Chris Ollenberger, managing principal of QuantumPlace Developments, said it was “highly important and appropriate” to include and engage the Stoney Nakoda First Nation on aspects of land use and subdivision phases, the next step in development, if approved.

The group confirmed they are committed to doing so if the development moves forward and more direction is received from council, Michelle Gurney, the principal of Shift Consulting, said.

But while the level of engagement of the Stoney Nakoda generated community buzz, the Town’s chief administrator, Lisa de Soto, told council legislatively a proponent for development doesn’t specifically have to engage First Nations. The Town circulated the ASPs to the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, but received no comments.

The matter is further complicated by the Municipal Government Act only compelling a municipality and applicant to do so if they border one another.

However, she added there are shortfalls in requirements when it comes to engaging First Nations.

“We all are aware there is a gap in municipal policy on Indigenous engagements, so neither our [Municipal Development Plan] nor the terms of reference for the two ASPs compelled or required the applicant to do any engagement with our Indigenous neighbours,” she said.

De Soto added council could vote on a memorandum of understanding – a common line of action between two or more parties – but it would take time. It could also work with TSMV to engage the Stoney Nakoda at each phase, if the development was approved.

Mayor John Borrowman recommended TSMV open dialogue with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. He said in his experience, a relationship with the Stoney Nakoda can improve if open ended questions are asked rather than “simply going to them and saying here’s how it’s going to look.”

At times, the reality of the municipality being at the mercy of provincial and federal policies was on full display.

When it comes to the wildlife corridor, building code and taxing visitor homes that remain empty much of the year, for example, the jurisdiction is held at higher levels of government and outside the purview of Town council.

Following six days of hearing from delegates, the discussions with Town staff also showed that some of what may be wanted from members of the public isn't possible.

While the Town may want to push for more use of renewable energy in homes, Lauren Miller, the manager of planning and development, said they “work collaboratively” with applicants to create a “win-win” for both sides.

“If we push further on those elements, it increases the Town’s exposure to legal risk,” she said.

For example, Alberta does not have inclusionary zoning bylaws mandating a specific amount of affordable housing for new developments. As a municipality, Canmore has no power to force a developer to include affordable housing, Miller said.

While residents may clamour for significantly more affordable housing options, without the province taking the lead, a municipality’s only option is to work with a developer.

The bonusing toolkit built into the ASPs pushes builders to build more, which will result in more reliance on renewable energy and a minimum of 10 per cent affordable units created. Those affordable units will be developed with each phase, said Jessica Karpat, QuantumPlace Development’s principal for planning, as opposed to leaving it to the end.

Ollenberger noted the bonusing toolkit has an annual review to allow for possible adjustments.

Though the decision was made more than a generation ago, the NRCB dictated development would happen. The ongoing discussions are how it will look.

Ollenberger highlighted the NRCB decision permitted 680 hectares of developable area, which TSMV would use 420 hectares. Other aspects of the NRCB decision allowed up to 6,085 residential units and 1.435 million square feet of commercial space, both of which the proposals come under.

Representatives for the developer, council and municipal staff all noted at various points that the ASPs are one cog in the development machine, as there will be continuous refinements during each phase of the process, if approved, in the land use and subdivision phases.

However, the NRCB decision has loomed over the Town for three decades.

Councillor Joanna McCallum asked the means to possibly return the NRCB decision to the province to be reconsidered. In a discussion with the Town’s legal representation, the option was unlikely.

Kelsey Becker Brookes, a partner and municipal team leader with Reynolds, Mirth, Richards and Farmer, noted there was little room for appeal when the NRCB makes a decision.

She said there was a 30-day window to appeal after the 1992 decision, which has long since passed. Becker Brookes added judicial review – where a judge in Alberta’s Court of Queens Bench can review an administrative board or tribunal’s decision – was unlikely since Section 32 of the NRCB Act states a decision is “final and shall not be questioned, reviewed or restrained.”

“It’s really intended to be a final decision that other courts aren’t second guessing, subject to that limited statutory right of appeals,” Becker Brookes said.

The original decision was for a tourism and recreation project, albeit with significant residential and commercial aspects. Council is limited in a decision due to Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act – also known as the Canmore Clause.

There’s interpretation council can make if the NRCB decision – which has never been tested in court – is consistent with the proposed development, she noted, but there could be pushback via an appeal to the Municipal Government Board.

“You are required to approve development, which is consistent with an approval that’s been granted by the NRCB to the extent that it complies with the one that been issued,” said the Town's legal counsel. 

The proposed ASPs will go to second reading at a later council meeting.

What’s being proposed?

Three Sisters Village ASP

  • Between 5,500 and 10,000 estimate visitor and permanent population
  • Between 3,000 and 5,000 residential units
  • Up to 602,000 square feet of retail and business commercial
  • Up to 188,000 square feet of indoor recreation and entertainment
  • Up to 20 per cent affordable housing
  • There would be 75 hectares (40 per cent) of open space

Smith Creek ASP

  • An estimated population of 2,200 to 4,500
  • Between 1,000 and 2,150 residential units
  • Up to 75,000 square feet of light industrial and business space
  • Up to 125,000 square feet of retail and commercial area for local services