Iconic Beachcombers Setting Threatened

By: Judith Hammill    

The small seaside town of Gibsons, BC, population 4500, where for twenty years the CBC filmed its popular “Beachcombers” TV series, is threatened with a massive waterfront development.

The picturesque harbour, familiar not only to generations of Canadians but also to audiences viewing the syndicated series around the world, is about to undergo a radical transformation. And not everyone likes the idea.

It is a story familiar in many Canadian communities. Developers, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the natural resource of a place, move in to exploit it. Some of the townspeople are convinced that economic benefits will outweigh any other concerns. Others place a higher value on aspects like character and tradition or community and environmental health.

Gibsons’ story is a classic example of these struggles. It is a many-tentacled story, with several angles from which to approach it.

In the Gibsons story, a developer with deep pockets and powerful connections has finally, after attempts over 10 years, succeeded in presenting a plan to a receptive town council to build a large-scale, five-star hotel and condominium project on the quaint village harbour front. How he got this far, despite an official community plan (OCP) that prohibited such oversize development, and the ramifications should he succeed in building it, are components of the story. So is the divisiveness that has grown between previously neighbourly townspeople.

As recently as 2009, Gibsons was deemed Most Livable Community in the World with a population under 20,000 by the United Nations-sponsored LivCom awards.

A large part of what impressed the judges was the visionary S.M.A.R.T. Official Community Plan. The town council recently “updated” this plan in a process that many of those closely involved felt was predetermined and over which they felt they had little influence. Despite repeated denials by the mayor, the town planner has since stated on the record that the update was done to accommodate the proposed development. Although the updated OCP actually still retains some protection against over-sized development in the Harbour, the mayor is firm in his conviction that amendments to the freshly adopted plan are appropriate and were always contemplated in any case.

Much of Gibsons sits on possibly the best-studied aquifer in North America.

It supplies pristine water to two-thirds of the town. In 2005, the water was judged the best drinking water in the world at an international competition. Understandably, people of the town are proud and protective of their aquifer. The proposed development sits on land where the aquifer’s cover, or aquitard, is close to the surface, so that construction as planned could penetrate the aquifer, possibly causing a catastrophic blowout and potentially contaminating the water. Efforts by the developer to mitigate the risks, carried out at the insistence of the townspeople, are of highly questionable efficacy, according to two peer reviews.

The privatization of public assets is another aspect of the story.

The town is prepared to sell a road leading to the waterfront to the developer so his complex can occupy it. Many argue that the price is dirt cheap and that this well-used public access should not be commercialized by incorporating it into the project.

Adjacent to the eastern side of the development is a park fronted by the only stretch of open waterfront left within the town’s boundaries. This waterfront is also to be turned over to the developer, who plans to extend the marina in front of his property to accommodate large yachts.

The park, which many consider to be the heart of the town, will be drastically reconfigured. The stage will be moved to the centre of the park where it will blast sound up the hill, the reason it was placed on the edge in the first place. The moved stage will block the view of what is now open water (but will become the aforementioned extension of the marina) where kayaks and other small boats drift over to listen to the music that is often featured in the park. The massive condominium building will replace mature trees and cast a shadow across large parts of the park where children play and families gather to picnic and listen to music.

To further his goal of accommodating large vessels, the developer has recently purchased the assets of Gibsons Marina to the west of his property in a complex deal that involves the town’s transferring the sublease of the land and water from its long-time owner to the developer, with presumably the consent of the province from which the lease originates.

The developer’s plans to accommodate larger vessels include dredging the harbour, a project also fraught with risk. The site is a former marine way and repair yard, and contaminants ranging from heavy metals and hydrocarbons to tributyltin, (lethal at one part per trillion) have been found there. The aquifer also extends under the ocean at this point.

The release of contaminants by dredging is a huge concern for townsfolk. Because the town has opted out of the Provincial Contaminated Site Profile process, but has not substituted a process of its own, townspeople are wondering who will be responsible for ensuring that their harbour and aquifer won’t be contaminated and who will be on the hook if something goes awry.

In the midst of the turmoil, the town went through an election, intensifying the dissension among citizens. Duelling ads were placed in the local media, dubious tactics were employed, anomalies occurred, and allegations of irregularities are still under investigation. In the end, the better-funded side won.

The activities of the town council, in particular the mayor, would benefit from closer scrutiny.

Freedom of Information requests, which included his personal email, have yielded only two heavily redacted pages. In contrast, FOI requests to the town planner yielded more than 900 pages, including documents that cast much-needed light on the project’s handling at town hall. The mayor, a former real estate agent and now a lawyer who practices real estate law, inter alia, is possibly in a conflict of interest, having acted for the developer in transactions related to the development site.

During his first tenure as mayor, with the support of a majority of the former councillors, the mayor turned down delegations to council raising concerns about  the project. Delegations are permitted on any matter over which council has authority, with a ten-minute time limit. The developer’s agent, by contrast, was welcomed for over an hour, promoting the project. One minority councillor brought to the mayor’s attention that the mayor had overstepped his authority in refusing the delegations and, months later, they were grudgingly reinstated.

With the support of the newly elected pro-development council, the mayor has overseen changes to the procedures bylaw, which, among other changes, now limits opportunities for presentations (delegations, inquiries) from the public.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests show that information has been suppressed.

Of particular interest was a 19-page letter written by the town planner and sent to the developer, the first official communication from the town to the developer about his development application. In essence a report, the planner’s letter outlined the many ways the project did not conform to the OCP. In less than a week, the developer’s agent met with the planner, his superior, and the mayor. Councillors never saw the letter-cum-report, the public never had access to it, and in the following days, weeks, and months, the planner’s assessment of the project changed 180 degrees. There has never been a public explanation for this about face. (For a more detailed analysis, see What's been going on in the town of Gibsons? )

Other documents were also suppressed. While the developer’s plans and studies are prominently displayed on the town’s website, credible reports by reputable experts, some commissioned by opponents of the project, and one simply offered to the town in good faith, were rejected and belittled. A $75,000 economic analysis by a consultant who has worked in this field in 84 countries and who was named by a prime minister of Canada to chair a committee of APEC, was dismissed and insulted by the mayor. Another Ph.D., who does mitigation on contaminated sites for resource companies all over North America, did an analysis of the development site and was refused permission to present his alarming findings as a delegation to council. The study by a hydrogeological engineer commissioned by a community organization to assess risks to the aquifer was dismissed out of hand. Two years later, geotechnical/hydrological studies that the developer was required to perform (because of the insistence of concerned citizens) came up with the same results that had been presented to the town previously—construction of the project as planned could severely compromise the aquifer.

Despite repeated requests, the town has never held a public meeting on the subject of the proposed hotel and condominium project.

The only opportunities for comment have been developer-hosted information meetings at which residents raising questions or concerns were heckled into submission or physically removed. There has been no consultation with the people about ceding public land or the park’s waterfront to the developer.

Complaints have been lodged by various townspeople to the Law Society, to the Ombudsperson, to the Planning Institute of BC, to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and to the Auditor General for Local Government.

The story also has a human interest angle. The brick-bats people have thrown at their neighbours, calling them naysayers and Nimbyists (to which the response is, respectively, “We are FOR a smaller hotel” and “It’s not my back yard; it’s all of our FRONT yard”), and the bitterness that may take decades to fade are sad indications of a town and its people in crisis.

The effect on small businesses that display a support sign when huge numbers of townspeople then boycott them is unhealthy. The invective thrown around on FaceBook is a case study in itself of human psychology.

How does this happen in the pretty little Beachcombers town people routinely characterized as paradise?