BIGHORN – Elected officials in the MD of Bighorn have approved a change for the Crossing at Ghost River that could see the retreat and conference centre accept future nightly visitor accommodation reservations.
The Crossing at Ghost River began operations in the late 1970s and is zoned to host weddings, conferences and retreats – large group bookings of its facilities – not single overnight room stays.
The company sought to change that with a rezoning application earlier this year. The objective was to diversify its business operations and increase occupancy beyond its current conference, retreat and wedding business. The change did not propose building or developing new facilities, but changing the way the current ones are used.
Planner Jenny Kasprowicz summarized for council the submissions received at a June public hearing into the proposed change to the direct control district.
"It was expressed that noises travel easily down the river valley and there were concerns the expansion of the business will increase this," Kasprowicz said. "The second concern was that traffic, especially on the shared access road leading into the Crossing, [would increase]."
The Crossing is located five kilometres southeast of the Hamlet of Benchlands on 59 hectares surrounded by agricultural lands, residential properties and commercial kennels.
It is comprised of seven buildings that include a kitchen, dining room, offices, bedrooms, meeting rooms, three staff accommodation rooms and a screened-in pavilion. There are 27 guest rooms and capacity for meetings of up to 60 people.
A Calgary company purchased the property in 2011 and invested in upgrading its facilities.
"Historically and under the ownership of the Crossing at Ghost River Ltd., the facility has operated as a retreat business only," wrote Civicworks planner Darlene Paranaque in the company's submission. "However, the Crossing has experienced difficulties in attracting enough business to be viable."
An assessment of the business suggested the owners could increase occupancy without creating more rooms by changing the zoning and relaxing current event regulations.
As part of its submissions, the Crossing stated to become a viable business it needs to achieve 40 to 45 per cent occupancy. Council also heard that the change is to supplement its existing retreat and event business, not replace it.
The company also hosted meetings with surrounding residents on the proposed changes in 2019, with several letters of support being submitted as part of the application for first reading.
Overall, Kasprowicz said concerns were raised around the application to expand the business beyond its original operating approvals.
Kasprowicz explained the Crossing's application for a change to its land use district was to have visitor accommodation as a permitted use, however administration brought it forward as a discretionary use.
She said that would mean that a development permit application would be required and end up in front of Bighorn council for approval and consideration.
"The applicant expressed that they would prefer visitor accommodation included as a permited use [at the public hearing]," she said, adding there were no other changes put forward. "Administration discussed this and we felt the district itself includes controls to mitigate some of the concerns, especially with visitor accommodation being a discretionary use.
"That gives council a lot of input into the development permit if it is approved for the site."
Within the direct control district, the ability to operate as a visitor accommodation business as a discretionary use was limited to 15 of its 27 rooms. As well, the number of major events permitted was increased to 25 from 10 and wording that allowed 15 minor events was removed. The changes to the district allows up to 75 guests, instead of 60, establishes the maximum stay at seven nights and removes a 24-hour restriction on events in the bylaw.
Kasprowicz said there would also be a two-year trial period with the ability to apply for a five-year development permit for visitor accommodation.
Councillor Paul Ryan supported administration's recommendation.
"I do support administration's position," he said. "Council has the last say [as a result] and the public will have the opportunity to address that."
Council voted in favour of second and third reading to the bylaw, with Coun. Paul Clark voting against the motion.
The direct control district for the Crossing was originally approved in 2016. In 2018, its occupancy rate was 27 per cent, according to its submissions.