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Three Sisters Village ASP defeated by Canmore council

“Town council paid attention to a huge community concern. It’s heartening and there were a lot of people who were concerned. There was a lot of concern and we wanted to help give people a platform to express that and I think it tapped into that and helped coalesce it into a much louder voice than the individual voices.”
CANMORE – Three Sisters Village area structure plan has been defeated after years of planning and months of being before town council.

The ASP was defeated on a 6-1 vote on Tuesday (May 25), as councillors expressed concern over the size of the project, issues on the development's impact on wildlife and developing on former undermined lands.

Councillors Vi Sandford, Jeff Hilstad, Karen Marra, Joanna McCallum, Esmé Comfort and Rob Seeley voted against the plan. Mayor John Borrowman was the lone voice of support for the ASP.

“Town council paid attention to a huge community concern. It’s heartening and there were a lot of people who were concerned,” said Karsten Heuer, an organizer with Bow Valley Engage. “There was a lot of concern and we wanted to help give people a platform to express that and I think it tapped into that and helped coalesce it into a much louder voice than the individual voices.”

For much of the past six months, the decision has loomed over residents on whether or not development of the lands would be finalized or if further work was needed.

Tuesday's vote showed council believed additional work was needed before moving forward with development of the lands in question.

“It was so rewarding. So many people have spent so much time into this and so much effort, and if we would’ve lost this game it would’ve been a serious blow,” said Wade Graham, an organizer with Bow Valley Engage. “I feel like we had an incredible effect on democracy this week and I’m incredibly proud of that.”

The decision followed several amendments by council at second reading and further work undertaken between staff and the proponent for the plan.

Changes to the wording for amendments on the involvement of the Stoney Nakoda and village resort accommodation were approved.

The amendment for phasing was slightly reworked to better help the potential of development, while maintaining the emphasis on commercial projects. The wildlife fence – designed to keep people out of the space for wildlife – was also passed to align more closely with development instead of being built first before any construction takes place.

A motion brought forward by Borrowman to have discussions with the landowner for a conservation land trust for a conservation easement was also passed and emphasized later by Comfort in closing comments.

The proponent expressed disappointment over the plan’s denial, especially after several years of work with the Town to get it to a stage they felt would help Canmore.

Chris Ollenberger, the director, strategy and development for Three Sisters Mountain Village, said they worked to align with Canmore’s Climate Action Plan, Integrated Transportation Plan and Recreation Master Plan as well as working within provincial acts.

“This was never supposed to be a discussion of whether development would proceed. It was a decision about how development should proceed. The Town has been planning for a future population of around 30,000 for many years. We worked in good faith with the Town and council and we followed their direction, including five years of community engagement," he said.

“We’re very disappointed with today’s decision and we’re going to be looking at all the options, including an appeal through the Municipal Government Board, given that the NRCB already decided that development to these former industrial lands was in the best interests of the public to move forward after balancing environment, social and economic considerations. That’s now our focus.”

Under the 1992 NRCB approval and Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA), the proponent can appeal the decision. Once an appeal has been made, the MGB is mandated to begin a hearing within 60 days and when completed, a decision rendered within 30 days. Section 619 also stipulates the MGB will only hear from the appellant and the municipality the appeal is made against.

“We stand by our proposals as high quality, extensive and fulsome applications that were aligned with the NRCB decision," Ollenberger said. "They were good proposals that can bring many benefits to the community, including affordable housing and recreational lands and wildlife corridor adjustments.”

The process has seen the community engaged and council put on the hot seat as some in the community wanted an outright refusal of the applications.

McCallum reminded residents that council’s role is to hear all perspectives from the community and not just one group or groups of people. She acknowledged the amount of contention the process has seen as council followed procedural fairness stipulated by the MGA and to be “pragmatic” in shaping the ASP to what best works for the community.

She also highlighted the lack of provincial insight on the decision, particularly with many public concerns relating to provincial authority opposed to that of a municipality.

“We will never be able to meet every community need and want in this application," she said. "I think it’s a sign of the times citizens are looking more locally for solutions to community challenges and so many feel disconnected from upper levels of government, yet connected locally and are coming to the Town to solve all encompassing problems that are much bigger than ourselves.”

Several councillors also noted concern with the setback from development and the designated wildlife corridor, which has been viewed as being 300 metres and is written into the Town’s land use bylaw.

Heuer, a biologist, said it was encouraging to see the community realize the importance wildlife has in the community and the framework of Canmore.

“In a way, it’s not surprising and it’s very very necessary. We’re living in a very different time globally than we were 30 years ago when this development first started getting legs after the NRCB decision," he said. "We know we’re in a climate change crisis, a species extinction crisis, so there’s larger global issues that boil down to our community and our place in our valley and how we choose to move forward and live actually makes a difference to these global crises.”

Borrowman noted the status quo in the town isn’t sustainable as the community wealth gap continues to grow and the ability for people to purchase homes locally impacted.

“The opportunity for young residents and young families and others to become established here without some source of wealth is becoming less likely. … We need to continue for new residents to join us here. I continue to welcome new neighbours and friends in Canmore.”

The mayor emphasized the ASP also meant 20 per cent of housing would be affordable housing that would perpetually be in the Canmore Housing Corporation's inventory, particularly for more middle class people in the community.

“I saw this as an opportunity to bring some balance as a community, but now that balance will continue to be uncertain until some future time. … This growing imbalance, particularly social imbalance that we experience in our community is, in my opinion, going to get worse.”

Council spoke highly of the affordable housing component, but that more work was needed to aspects of the ASP.

“Since I’ve lived here, housing has also been - and increasingly more so - a concern to get in for young families and it’s been such a struggle,” Comfort said.

“I tried to be able to approve this plan in my own mind because it would get rid of the uncertainty and there would be a road we would know we’d have to travel. I just couldn’t do it. It felt like putting on a pair of shoes that were too small. There were too many things that were not addressed.”

Hilstad said the ASP, following amendments, were better than first presented, but “there’s still areas that need to be addressed that just can’t be addressed through amendments.”

He added the overall footprint was too large and had heard from the public on the same concerns.

“From what I heard from the public throughout the public hearing and through all the correspondence we’ve received, is a lot of people stated they don’t have a problem with development, it’s just the size of development.”

The path to get to the final decision has been long and arduous.

The possibility of development in the Three Sisters Village area has hung over the community since the 1992 NRCB decision.

The 2004 Village Resort Centre ASP has allowed a development framework for nearly the past two decades and will continue to allow development. However, TSMV submitted new ASP plans to meet their hope for the lands.

Since the developer submitted the ASPs late last year and first reading was passed in February, the process has been among the most contentious issues in Canmore in recent years as many residents opposed the plans.

The public hearing between first and second readings needed six days and heard from more than 200 residents, while hundreds wrote letters of opposition.

The Smith Creek ASP was unanimously defeated at second reading, effectively cutting the original proposed plan by about 30 per cent, despite council directing any future development plans encompass both following the rejection of the 2017 ASP submission.

Council granted a two week deferral of third reading on May 11 to allow representatives for TSMV to work with Town staff on concerns raised toward specific amendments made by council approved at second reading.

The Outlook spoke with five people – who asked to remain anonymous - familiar with the planning process and said a council typically directs staff to analyze the amendments following second reading opposed to having the proponent ask for the deferral. One person called it “very uncommon” to have the process unfold the way it did.

However, it ultimately ended with the regular outcome of staff and the proponent working to see if the passed amendments were possible or not.

Had the plan been approved, the development of the area – which included a resort hotel, retail shops and residential homes – would take decades to reach fruition. Each step of the build-out would still need to go through subdivision and building permits approvals.

As shown in other ASPs and area redevelopment plans in the community, possible amendments and approvals for the various development stages would have returned to future councils.

For now, though, the denial of applications has led to many in the public feeling their voices were heard.

“I think we were able to really focus the messaging and bring people together and engage them, give them the courage to speak up and to make their voice heard,” Graham said of the community engagement. “They weren’t alone in the community and were united in many ways. I’ve always loved how close and engaged this community is.”

Greg Colgan

About the Author: Greg Colgan

Greg is the editor for the Outlook.
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