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Banff councillor concerned over 'legal traps' for train station ARP

“I have some concerns with proceeding and I’d like to know more because I am not comfortable proceeding if I understand the superintendent’s intentions."
20210720 Banff Train Station 0007
Banff train station. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF – At least one Banff town councillor wants a legal opinion ahead of administration’s introduction of a redevelopment plan for the railway lands given Parks Canada’s concerns that some parts fly in the face of national park legislation and policy.

Sal Rasheed, superintendent of Banff National Park, put the Town of Banff on notice in a Feb. 10 letter to council that Parks Canada is unlikely to recommend ministerial approval of the area redevelopment plan (ARP), which includes a gondola terminus to Mount Norquay.

Coun. Hugh Pettigrew said he was interested in legal advice ahead of the introduction of the ARP for first reading by council, saying he had concerns and feared there are a “lot of legal traps” given Parks Canada’s clear position outlined in the superintendent’s letter.

“It sounds like we are going to proceed to an ARP, at some point down the road… and then we’re hearing that it’s going to put Parks Canada in an awkward position,”  said Pettigrew at the Feb. 27 council meeting where Rasheed’s letter was on the public agenda.

“That’s why I am looking for a legal opinion before we go to an ARP.”

Town of Banff administration advised against seeking a legal opinion at this point in the ARP process.

“Administration is still engaging in very active discussions with Parks Canada specific to this ARP, and as council is aware, there has not been a tabled ARP at this point in time for your consideration,” said Alison Gerrits, who was acting town manager at the Feb. 10 council meeting.

“Should that occur and there were a difference of opinion, if there was an issue at that time, that would be the point which administration may recommend seeking a legal opinion, but at this point in time, we would advise that it’s very premature in the stage that this project is at.”

Coun. Barb Pelham, who chaired the meeting, said council is meeting with the superintendent for “a two-way conversation” on March 23 on this and other issues.

“That will be a real opportunity for us to have dialogue,” she said.

In his letter, Rasheed indicated Parks Canada’s support for the redevelopment and revitalization of the Banff train station lands as long as this and any other proposal conforms with national park law and policy.

However, he indicated that in all of Parks Canada’s detailed reviews, it was determined that drafts of the ARP did not fully comply with policy and law, and that changes suggested to bring the plan into conformance had not been addressed.

Rasheed said Parks Canada has previously flagged a number of key components in the plan that would challenge the federal agency’s ability to recommend final ministerial approval.

“This could lead to an untenable situation for both of our organizations, with council approving an ARP that Parks Canada is not in a position to recommend for minister approval, as required under the Incorporation Agreement before the ARP can legally take effect,” he wrote.

In that same letter, Rasheed encouraged council in future to request that copies of Parks Canada’s correspondence to Town administration on matters that are before council for decision be shared with council “for your awareness and consideration”.

At the Feb. 27 council meeting, Pettigrew, on a 3-1 vote, was unsuccessful in his attempt to have Town administration release all of that correspondence between Parks Canada and administration on the ARP to council.

“I’ve read the letter and I have a Parks Canada superintendent telling me I should be asking for the information between what’s happened between admin and what’s happened between Parks on the subject of the ARP for the railway lands,” he said.

“OK – let’s see it.”

Gerrits said the correspondence is very operational in nature as administration has worked to bring forward an ARP for council’s consideration, adding correspondence would be included for council if administration thought it was crucial to the decision-making process.

“We would absolutely include it if it was deemed necessary to inform a decision of council was going to make, or if we felt that it was useful for that,” she said, adding she didn’t want to leave the impression that all correspondence associated with the ARP would be shared during the ARP process.

“There’s always that caveat and a concern that without a greater report that accompanies this kind of communication, context could be lost; however, if council wanted to see these particular letters, we don’t have an issue with specifically sharing them.”

After hearing Gerrits’ response, councillors Pelham, Chip Olver and Kaylee Ram voted against Pettigrew’s motion. Mayor Corrie DiManno and councillors Grant Canning and Ted Christensen were absent.

“I feel good about that level of correspondence that will be available and presented to us,” said Pelham.

Jan and Adam Waterous, who own the Mount Norquay ski resort, hold the lease through their personal holding company Liricon Capital for about 17.4 hectares of Canadian Pacific railway lands on both the south and north sides of the train tracks in Banff. Liricon’s overarching vision is to turn the dilapidated train station lands at the west entrance to the Banff townsite into a multi-modal transit hub, including the return of passenger rail from Calgary International Airport to the Banff train station.

Along with calls for eating and drinking establishments, retail, residential housing, an amphitheatre for concerts and special events, and more than 1,000 parking spaces on both sides of the train tracks, a key element of the plan has been a gondola terminus connecting the townsite to the base of Norquay.

The 2010 Banff National Park Management Plan called for exploring the feasibility of an aerial tramway system from the Banff townsite to the ski area to provide new visitor experiences while reducing human activity in the Cascade wildlife corridor.

However, in 2019, Parks Canada turned down a proposal for a gondola from the train station lands to the summit of Norquay following the feasibility study, which determined the proposal went against policies on development limits and ski area management. A second pitch for a gondola to the base of Mount Norquay also didn’t get support from Parks.

The 2022 management plan is silent on the gondola, which Rasheed has previously said means it is off the table. The new management plan, however, did not slam the door shut on Liricon’s push for the return of passenger rail to Banff to deal with terrible traffic congestion, but raised challenges around wildlife mortality on the existing tracks and that a second line for passenger trains would only make that worse.