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Parks Canada says no to gondola from Banff townsite to Norquay

A decision on whether to not to remove a gondola terminus from an area redevelopment plan for the Banff train station lands is up for discussion and debate at a Banff town council meeting on Sept. 13.

BANFF – Parks Canada is making it clear it has quashed all plans for an aerial gondola between the Banff townsite and Mount Norquay Ski and Sightseeing Resort.

Confusion and controversy have continued to swirl given recent indications by Liricon Capital – the personal holding company of Jan and Adam Waterous – that Parks Canada remains open to a gondola from the Banff train station lands to the base of the ski hill.

But a written statement from Parks Canada to the Outlook this week indicates this is not the case.

The statement says Liricon has submitted two conceptual documents proposing redevelopment of the ski area to include a gondola between the railway lands and Mount Norquay – a 2018 feasibility study proposing a gondola to the summit of Mount Norquay, and a 2020 feasibility study, which was presented for discussion purposes – for a gondola to the base of the ski area.

“After careful study by Parks Canada, concerns around conformance with key laws and policies pertaining to commercial development and growth, use of public lands, and ski area management were identified in both submissions,” according to the statement.

“Also, gondola infrastructure described in both of the submissions is located on public lands outside of the legislated boundaries of the Mount Norquay Ski Area, which cannot be permitted,” it states. “Further, Parks Canada has not suggested or specified to Liricon that a gondola base must be included in the area redevelopment plan for the railway lands in the Town of Banff. Parks Canada is not currently reviewing any other submissions or proposals that include a gondola.”

Jan Waterous, a managing partner with Liricon, said she was shocked by Parks Canada’s statement, adding it is “totally new and inconsistent with any of our prior discussions with Parks Canada and if accurate, would be astounding.”

She said Liricon would seek clarity on this information from Parks.

“Parks Canada has never told us that they would not consider a second gondola proposal,” she said.

Jan and Adam, who own the Mount Norquay ski resort, also hold the lease through their company Liricon for about 17.4 hectares of Canadian Pacific railway lands on both the south and north sides of the train tracks in Banff, along with the 1910 heritage train station.

Their overarching vision is to turn the dilapidated train station lands into a multi-modal transit hub, including the return of passenger rail from Calgary International Airport to the Banff train station.

The draft ARP for the lands, which is still under development, also calls for eating and drinking establishments, retail, medium-density 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 Waterous’ vision in the ARP – which must be approved by Banff town council because the train station lands sit inside the Town of Banff boundary – is a gondola terminus connecting the townsite to the base of the Norquay ski resort.

Jan said she, Adam and their team met in good faith with Parks Canada four times in 2020 to discuss the process Parks Canada would follow to review a second gondola proposal to the base of the ski hill and the issues from Parks Canada’s perspective that would need to be addressed.

At the last meeting on July 27, 2020, she said Parks Canada provided a constructive document that summarized the discussions and path forward for a second gondola proposal. The Outlook did not receive a copy of that document as requested of both Parks Canada and Liricon.

Jan said they have had no further discussion with Parks Canada since that meeting concerning a Town-to-Norquay base gondola because they told Parks at the time they would focus efforts in the near term on an ARP for the railway lands.

“Documentation from Parks Canada state that currently a gondola terminus is not a permitted use in the railway lands, hence the draft ARP includes a gondola terminus as a permitted use,” she said.

“Its approval allows a second gondola proposal to be considered at some point in the future.”

However, Banff town councillor Peter Poole has brought forward a notice of motion to council earlier this summer to remove the gondola terminus from the ARP on the grounds Parks Canada has said no and the Town of Banff must legally adhere to Parks Canada’s development and land use decisions. His motion is up for discussion and debate on Sept. 13.

Poole was accused of a conflict of interest by Adam Waterous because he owns a hotel on the lower slopes of Mount Norquay. However, he was cleared by his council colleagues based on legal advice.

Poole, who attends closed door and public meetings of council and the governance and finance committee, said he has never seen any documentation from Parks Canada supporting a second gondola proposal.

“I only have the material that is public, which is Parks Canada has stopped considering this,” he said during the Aug. 9 council meeting. “As far as I’m concerned, the evidence before the public is that this is closed.”

In response to Parks Canada’s statement to the Outlook this week quashing both gondola proposals, Poole said he was grateful for the federal agency’s clarity on the matter, noting this will be helpful to Banff town council with the ARP.

“We are subordinate legally to Parks Canada and we need to understand our role to protect the independent municipality status of Banff for our residents,” he said.

Jan said the Town of Banff has been provided with relevant documentation that clearly confirms Parks Canada is open to receiving a second gondola proposal for a Town to Norquay Base gondola. 

She said she did not feel comfortable sharing the documentation with the Outlook because it is private.

She said the documentation makes clear Parks Canada has had several constructive meetings with Liricon on the process for submitting a second gondola proposal, noting a review of the timeline was included.

“Finally, this documentation also makes clear Parks Canada’s need for a gondola terminus to be included in the ARP before Norquay submits a second gondola proposal,” she said.

“Councillor Poole’s notice of motion is nonsense and a back-door means of trying to avoid a fulsome consultation on a second gondola proposal with relevant government agencies and our community.”

But prominent environmentalist and Banff resident Harvey Locke, a former lawyer and co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative, said there is no evidence before the public to support Liricon’s assertions Parks is open to a gondola.

At Banff town council’s Aug. 9 meeting, Locke called on council to back Poole’s motion to scrap a gondola terminus from the ARP for the train station lands, noting Parks Canada has outright rejected a gondola.

He said council must conform with Parks Canada’s decisions under the Town of Banff incorporation agreement and management plan, which give the federal agency authority over land use matters in the townsite.

“It’s not appropriate for the Town to take any step that says to the federal government ‘we’re not paying attention to your decisions under your management plan,'” he said.

Unless there is communication from Parks Canada to the Town of Banff on the Waterous’ second gondola proposal, Locke said council must consider it hearsay and exclude it from further consideration.

“This is really important because we’ve got to put an end to this merry-go-round. Parks Canada has decided this matter and that should be the end of it for the Town,” he said.

“Please get our community past this problem, or this controversy will dog us for a long time.”

Town administration was pressed by council on whether the Town had seen any correspondence from Parks Canada suggesting a second, smaller gondola was under consideration.

“I don’t believe I have correspondence to that effect,” said Town Manager Kelly Gibson in response.

The draft 2021 management plan for Banff National Park is silent on an aerial gondola from the Banff townsite to Mount Norquay.

However, the 2010 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.

In 2018, Liricon submitted a proposal for 4.4-km aerial gondola from the train station lands to the summit of Mount Norquay, along with ridge-top boardwalks and a two-storey summit pavilion providing food service, educational displays and viewing area.

The following year, Parks Canada vetoed the proposal on the grounds it did not conform with the ski hill’s lease, licence of occupation, current legislation on commercial growth limits or other key Parks Canada policies and plans.

In addition, according to documents previously obtained by the Outlook under federal Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) legislation on Norquay’s initial proposal, Parks Canada feared an extension of Norquay's lease and licence of occupation to accommodate a gondola proposal could be viewed as defacto expansion of the ski hill and set a precedent for other ski resorts.

The ATIP documents also showed Parks Canada had concerns a gondola could be seen as a threat to Banff National Park’s World Heritage Site designation, given protection of natural viewscapes was one of the key criteria for inclusion in the Canadian Rocky Mountains World Heritage Site.

In addition, Parks Canada raised concerns about the impacts of using scarce, undeveloped montane lands for the base parking lot, highlighting millions of dollars were spent removing facilities and restoring disturbed areas since the 1990s to ensure wildlife habitat and movement corridors in this area are preserved.

In its statement to the Outlook this week, Parks Canada also said Banff’s’ management plan and ski area management guidelines, along with approved Mount Norquay site guidelines, have been developed using the best-available ecological science and research, and through extensive public dialogue.

“It is Parks Canada’s position that its policies on limits to commercial development and ski area management are fundamental to protecting the ecological integrity of Banff National Park and to ensure that the park is preserved now and for future generations,” according to the statement.  “In managing national parks, ecological integrity is the first priority in decision-making and strict development limits are in place.”

Jan said national polling by Liricon showed there is support for a gondola form the townsite to the base of the ski hill.

She said the poll of 400 Banffites, 1,308 Albertans and 1,401 Canadians, done through Joe Pavelka at Mount Royal University, concluded 62 per cent of Banffites, 81 per cent of Albertans and 88 per cent of Canadians were in support.

Jan, who provided both written and verbal submissions to Banff council for its Aug. 9 meeting on Poole’s notice of motion, said Liricon never challenged Parks Canada’s decision to turn down its first gondola proposal to the summit of Mount Norquay.

But she said Parks Canada officials in both Ottawa and Banff in subsequent meeting gave the company helpful guidance as to what elements of the summit gondola proposal they deemed unacceptable.

“For example, we’ve learned that the gondola cannot go above the ski runs to the summit, that public access along the Norquay road cannot be restricted, and that a future gondola proposal could only travel from the town to Norquay’s base,” she said.

Jan said Parks Canada also specified before submitting a new revised gondola proposal for potential approval, Norquay would first require the Town of Banff to include a gondola terminus as a permitted use on the railway lands.

“For this reason, the ARP provides for a gondola terminus for a completely different, smaller and separate future gondola proposal – the town to Norquay base gondola, not a summit gondola, to conform with the feedback that we have received from Parks,” she said.

“This gondola proposal does not exist yet, it is not sitting on anyone’s desk waiting to be reviewed. It exists only as an idea, this is what we plan to pursue and Parks Canada is very well aware of our intentions.”