Development in Canmore at crossroads

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It may seem like a lot of development proposals in and around Canmore are currently being floated and the result has been significant concern among community members over the cumulative impacts of future growth on all aspects of life in the Bow Valley.

Yellowstone to Yukon program director Stephen Legault said it is hard to remember a time when so much development was being proposed and considered in the Bow Valley all at the same time.

“It is a lot for people in Canmore right now and it is overwhelming,” Legault said.

Three Sisters Mountain Village has officially submitted its amendment to the Resort Core area structure plan (ASP) and its completed ASP for Smith Creek; the company has submitted its wildlife corridor alignment for approval by Alberta Environment and Parks; Stone Creek Resorts are engaging the public in a conversation about adding gaming and a gondola to its already approved ASP; Stoney Nakoda First Nation has signalled they are interested in partnering with a developer to continue work on the Horseshoe Lands, formerly the Seebee townsite, and the MD of Bighorn has an approved ASP for lands in Dead Man’s Flats that has been disputed due to its high ecological value.

Two of the most significant development processes occurring simultaneously are the application for the Smith Creek wildlife corridor being considered by the provincial government, which is the legislative body with the authority to designate wildlife corridors on private lands, and the two ASPs submitted to the Town of Canmore’s planning department.

Having both processes occur at the same time is cause for concern for Legault, who pointed out that the boundaries of the corridor, a decision that has yet to be made, would determine the development boundaries in the ASP.

“The way we look at it, we think the first decision to be made is what is the appropriate location of the wildlife corridor and once that has been determined, then we can decide as a community what can happen in their remaining lands that have not been designated as part of the wildlife corridor,” Legault said.

“Our preference is for the province to make a decision on the corridor and then the developer would determine what adjustments or changes are needed to their proposal and submit it to the Town as a revised area structure plan.”

The proposed corridor, however, does not meet the standards Y2Y would like to see included in the design, including ensuring all designated land in the corridor is less than a 25 degree slope. The key issue with slope, and animal tracking data points to the conclusion, is that most wildlife tend to prefer to travel on terrain that is less than 25 degrees.

The developer, Three Sisters Mountain Village, and its representatives with QuantumPlace, have submitted a corridor alignment where the 25 degree slope line is delineated through work its consultants conducted on the landscape.

The 25 degree slope line that Y2Y would suggest is appropriate for the corridor proposal is not in the same place, which is a cause for concern for Legault, because the Smith Creek wildlife corridor is the final corridor to be designated on TSMV lands as set out in the 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board decision.

With this being the final corridor in the area, Legault called upon the provincial government to lead a cumulative impact assessment of all proposed development for the valley, and an assessment of the overall functionality of the system of wildlife corridors that have been designated along the north side of the valley.

“We are not suggesting we start a multi-year process,” he added. “The community of Canmore and the province of Alberta have been studying connectivity in the Bow Valley for 20 years. Someone needs to sit down and play a leadership role.”

The concern is that development would put connectivity at risk, and without a cumulative assessment of connectivity and wildlife movement through designated corridors, it could be severely affected. As a valley in the Rocky Mountains, the area has relatively low elevations at the bottom and flows east and west, which is unique and makes wildlife movement through it continentally important, said Legault.

Mayor John Borrowman also recognizes the unique and special nature of the valley and community that is Canmore. He said, though, that calls for a moratorium or halt to all development proposed in the Bow Valley are myopic in the sense that there are multiple complex factors to consider when making development decisions as a municipality.

“There is a balance we have to find,” said the mayor. “We have to protect the environment, but we also have to allow for growth and development. I do not know where that line will be, but no development is not an option.”

As for the content of the development proposals that have been submitted officially to the development authority, Borrowman said there is nothing really new. The two area structure plans for TSMV flow out of prior decisions made over 20 years ago, including the NRCB decision and Bylaw 198.

“There is really nothing new here in terms of potential growth,” Borrowman said. “The numbers have been on the table for a long time … all we have done since is put shape on the land as to where those units might go.”

Last Thursday (March 18), TSMV hosted an open house and feedback session at the request of Alberta Environment and Parks, to provide the community with a forum to engage in proposed wildlife corridor alignment and provide comment.

As members of the public showed up to the event expecting to be able to provide their comments directly to Alberta Environment, they were surprised to find QuantumPlace hosting the event and collecting their feedback.

Legault challenged the appropriateness of the process and questioned whether the province would receive unfiltered feedback from the proponent of the project. While he was not able to attend, five staff from Y2Y were at the two open house sessions.

“They were extremely disappointed with the way the open house was run,” he said. “It was confusing … it was not clear that Alberta Environment and Parks was actually responsible for receiving on the record feedback provided.”

Alberta Environment and Parks press secretary Brent Wittmeier said the provincial government is committed to an open and transparent process while considering TSMV’s corridor application.

He said the open house, hosted by the developer with AEP staff attending, is just one of several ways the public can be part of the decision making process.

“The open house was only one part of our process to talk to people to make sure we have all the pieces to make the decision properly,” he said. “Three Sisters is managing the feedback collected (at the open house) and submitting it to us.

“There will be plenty of opportunity to see what has been said and respond accordingly.”

It was AEP that set out paramaters for the developer to host the feedback session in Canmore and, according to the mayor, it was also AEP that set out that the municipality should also consider the ASPs at the same time.

Borrowman said council has no obligation to process the ASP in any specific timeline, however, it cannot just put it on a shelf to avoid making a decision.

“To shelve it is not, in my mind, good governance,” Borrowman said. “The benefit to processing applications is that it actually puts it to the community and allows the community to speak to the application and for elected government representatives to make a decision.”

First reading of ASP applications could be in front of council in April, and the province is expected to present a draft decision for public comment prior to April 20.

First reading of a bylaw allows the official process to begin and a public hearing to be held, and Borrowman said it does not mean these decisions are occurring in isolation of each other.

He said the order of applications can be debated, but the municipality and developer agreed to timelines set out by the province for this process, including consideration of the ASP while the corridor is being evaluated by the province.

Wittmeier, meanwhile, reiterated that AEP is committed to meeting requirements of the NRCB decision in relation to this wildlife corridor and that it should contain enough land to maintain wildlife movement through the property.

But since the Bow Corridor Ecosystem Advisory Group guidelines for wildlife corridors are not required or mandatory for the Smith Creek corridor design, he said the corridor’s design would be “to the satisfaction of Alberta Environment and Parks” and based on “what the science says.”

Wittmeier said AEP’s own wildlife biologists are analyzing the corridor application, which is available on the government department website public comments section.

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