Trouble In Paradise

March 1, 2009

When Chris Marshall began as Gibsons town planner in 1998, a shift was under way. "There was a great deal of the old boys' club still in effect," he tells me, from his town-hall office overlooking the harbour. It's early March 2008-the streets are empty, the boats still. "People expected not to have to do things by the letter of the law."

All that was changing, though. Developers and builders didn't like it, but his predecessor had already begun to take the town out of-as Marshall puts it-the "wink-wink, let-it-go" phase into the age of bylaws and accountability. Marshall made it clear he would pick up where she left off. His first few years in office, he froze development in key areas and set about redrafting the official community plan (OCP) for the town of Gibsons, collecting opinions and demands from the locals on everything from design specifications to environmental regulations. The OCP promptly won awards from SmartGrowth BC and the Planning Institute of B.C.

Marshall built a close relationship with the town, implemented an open process, and followed clear guidelines from the community, so how-he's still wondering-did the first major development proposal under his mandate get crushed before it even got started? As an ambitious young planner, Marshall had nurtured an extensive waterfront proposal from conventional condominiums to the cutting edge of sustainable design, only to watch it get shot down. That proposal, for a project in the heart of Gibsons at Shoal Bay, included almost everything the town had asked for in the OCP (and then some). But Marshall says he's realized something: bringing the town back into town planning means that emotions take precedence. Sustainable design, public greenways, eco-density-any planner's arsenal in the age of global warming-aren't enough if the town doesn't feel good about what it sees.

He pulls out the project's specs: over 15 pages of architectural drawings and a three-inch stack of bylaws, environmental studies, notes, and recommendations. He walks me through the drawings, lingering on some of the more controversial points: the four storeys (the maximum allowed) that were actually five starting from the waterfront, the sloped roof, the holes drilled into the aquifer. Each represents hours of paperwork and negotiation. But this was the technical side of the proposal: the rest-how to make it fit with the town's image-he had to leave to the town itself. "Even if all the guidelines were met," he says, "the one thing I couldn't tell people is it does or it doesn't meet the small-village character." He looks up, catches my eye. A flicker of a weary smile: "It didn't."

Back in December 2007, the conference room at the Cedars Inn in Upper Gibsons was packed with over 150 townspeople, and another 60 waited outside. Marshall had expected a few to show up for the open house, but nothing like this. Developer Grant Gillies had already held three poorly attended open houses (some blamed limited advertising); one, in tandem with the news that a hotel might be built at the sailing club next door, gave rise to a rumour that Gillies was building the condo development and the hotel-a rumour that ran wild, leaving Gillies looking every bit the big city, big money developer without a conscience. A small but growing coalition of citizens responded by postering the town and writing letters to the local paper publicizing this open house.

While Gillies (mid 40s, golf shirt, khakis; doing his best to blend in) sat on a bench in the front row, Marshall (early 40s, glasses, equally casual) presented the 40-minute slide show. Gillies's Target Developments was applying to turn two prime waterfront lots-zoned for a few single-family dwellings and a motel-into 109 condominiums. It was a lot to ask, but Marshall was demanding a lot in return. A new provision by the town council, backed up by legislation in Victoria, gave Marshall the power to negotiate with Gillies even before he applied to council for rezoning approval. In other words, Marshall had what every town planner dreams of: leverage. Through the fall, he and Gillies had hammered out one of the most progressive development proposals Gibsons had ever seen: a car co-op, a public walkway, sleek eco-density design, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a $600,000 contribution toward affordable housing along with a $75,000 contribution to parks and public art. The fact that Marshall was up there, standing in front of his town, presenting this proposal on behalf of a developer, meant the process was working. Yes, this was a major condominium development that might turn Lower Gibsons-and its waterfront-into something new, but in Marshall's opinion, "It's good for the community."

The problem was that the community didn't agree. Murmurs filled the room. The buildings are too big. It's a wetland, anyway. And what about our waterfront? Who owns that? Marshall, unprepared for the backlash, fielded what questions he could, handed off to Gillies when needed, promised another open house, then called this one to a merciful close.

Two months later, Marshall welcomed another 300 people to the first official public hearing on the Shoal Bay proposal. The second open house (or fifth, depending on who's counting) had already taken place, with 150 showing up. The public hearing was the only chance locals had to speak their mind in front of town council before it voted. This time, Marshall was prepared. He'd booked the Gibsons Legion, the only facility he was sure could accommodate the expected numbers. Of the 45 locals who got up to speak, almost 40 were against the development. They didn't want what they called an "elephant" taking over their prized waterfront. Though they acknowledged Gillies's willingness to adapt to Marshall's demands, they weren't happy with the process. They wanted a say before any plans were made or negotiations took place. The following week, four of the five councillors (including the mayor), despite their support for the development, voted the project down. The town was open to a new proposal, an exhausted Marshall told an equally exhausted Gillies, but the current one just wouldn't do.

Soon after, we meet in Marshall's town-hall office. I was one of many townspeople to feel relief at council's decision, I tell him. He winces. Marshall likens his job to that of his brother, who works for a global nonprofit brokering deals between rebel armies and governments. He can spend years on any one deal, only to watch it shatter in a matter of minutes. "It hurts," Marshall says, half laughing, half serious. "That's kind of how I feel."

The town of Gibsons-along with the Sunshine Coast as a whole-jumped onto the Canadian map in the '70s with The Beachcombers, shot for 19 years just up from the harbour in Gibsons Landing. The clumsy rustic feel of the show, along with its backdrop of shorelines and cobbled-together waterfront cabins, captured a slice of rural West Coast life far from the fast-paced hurly-burly of big brother Vancouver. Today, a drive along Gibsons' coastal road might make you think that nothing much has changed. Nestled into forest groves and along rock cliffs, one small waterfront home after another is hemmed in by insatiable blackberry bushes, towering firs, and steep dirt-road driveways. Even Gibsons Landing itself has retained its seaside village charm: the cluster of fishing boats, the shops and galleries tucked into sloping buildings with views of Keats and Bowen islands in the distance.

It's only once you start up the steep hill toward Upper Gibsons that you notice something new. Marshall estimates that, based on current growth, the Gibsons population will almost double in the next 20 years-from 4,200 now to 7,200. The signs are everywhere. Condominiums, townhomes, the highway-then strip malls, a London Drugs, an IGA, a Starbucks. "It's another reason why you want higher-density buildings," Marshall says, looking out over his deserted waterfront. Vancouver is moving in.

Down at the proposed development site at Shoal Bay in Lower Gibsons, I stand beside Suzanne Senger, owner of a waterfront B & B/hostel located no more than a five-minute walk away. Senger's speaking on behalf of Citizens for Gibsons Landing, the coalition of locals who organized the campaign against the development. The March day is unseasonably sunny and dry as we stare into a pond just to the side of a small wooden shack. "Great place for an underground garage, huh?" Senger says, shaking her head.

When I first saw the two or three dilapidated wooden cabins on two-and-a-half acres of dead grass and blackberry bushes overlooking multimillion-dollar ocean and harbour views, I was surprised that nothing had been done on these lots yet. Now Senger points out the standing water. The heart of the Gibsons water supply, its aquifer, she explains, funnels itself into these few acres, making the Shoal Bay site one of the wettest, trickiest construction sites in town. A group of investors optioned the property to Gillies in June 2006. This allowed him to do the necessary environmental and hydrogeological studies for his proposal before having to purchase the property outright.

Aside from how Gillies planned to build on the wetland (on concrete stilts sunk deep into the earth), Citizens for Gibsons Landing had many other problems with his proposal, Senger tells me: the density of the development, the height of the buildings, the increased traffic, the design itself. But overall, the issue was the bigger picture. A young single mom, Senger wants to preserve what she moved her son here for. "A lot of my friends are originally from White Rock-and they're afraid what happened there is happening here." A quirky oceanfront community of friends and neighbours, she goes on, turning into a bland condo-dominated landscape cluttered with strangers. "Nobody's opposed to some development," she insists. "But most people in the community are adamant that the town needs to own the process of planning. We decide what we need to do before the developers."

"It's turned into a positive process," Gillies assures me, on the phone from his Dundarave office. "Even though the project was not accepted in form, the council and community said, ‘Don't give up.' "

And he hasn't. With so much already invested in the project-application fees, architectural costs, environmental studies, and the yearly option on the property-Gillies has no desire to stop now.

It's now late March 2008-A month after council voted Gillies's proposal down. For the third (or sixth) Shoal Bay development open house, Gillies is handling the slide-show presentation himself. Dancing around the Gibsons Elementary gym in a striped shirt and jeans, he looks more emcee than developer, cracking jokes and passing the mike from speaker to speaker. It's standing-room-only-at least 200 people-with more trickling in all the time. I spot Senger taking notes. Marshall hovers at the back, a silent observer now. He's not alone; the mayor hovers with him. Both watch curiously to see what happens as their town's planning process takes on a life of its own.

Along with Robert Ciccozzi, his architect, Gillies shows slides of various new design possibilities, incorporating ideas and concerns from the previous open houses. His goal is to get some kind of consensus on the best design approach from the community itself. He and his architect will come up with another proposal, using the community's ideas, draft it, and then approach council once again for approval. It's a step backward, perhaps, but the only way forward for now.
A local architect gets up and describes some plans of his own he's drawn up: pyramid-like buildings surrounding a lake with four floating residences.

A woman asks Gillies how he's planning to deal with the traffic on her already overcrowded street. A young bearded man with a headband reads a prepared speech on the tragedy of lost wetlands.

Two hours in, Gillies is beginning to lose steam. "This is good," one man says, "but we'd love to have another meeting-maybe with PowerPoint set up, get some more of our ideas across." "To what detail do you involve larger groups in this process?" Gillies asks the crowd, his emcee shine worn off. "Time is of the essence." Marshall walks to the front of the gym. He pulls Gillies aside, encouraging him to wrap things up.

From my vantage, Marshall seems the coach to Gillies's athlete, preparing him for the next round. Save your energy, he seems to be saying, there's more to come. It's a new role for Marshall, helping two classic opponents-town and developer-prepare for a game neither is used to playing.

And then, just like that, the game is over. Early July, and word has it Gillies has pulled out. "He came back in with revised plans that people were happy with," Marshall tells me over the phone from his office. "But I heard through the grapevine that the revised plans didn't work out financially." (Gillies himself says he'll concentrate on other projects in Pemberton and Washington state, but that he continues to be in love with the Shoal Bay site.) It's the outcome that Marshall most feared; still, he's optimistic about the future. "We have a better understanding of the desires of the community now," he says, "what will and won't be acceptable."

All the negotiations, town meetings, and open houses, the council vote and public hearing, are paying off, he says. The Upper Gibsons Neighbourhood Plan has just begun a similar process, and with Shoal Bay behind them, Marshall admits that at least they now know what to expect. "We cut our teeth on Shoal Bay, in a sense," he says.
Just don't expect Grant Gillies to say, "You're welcome."

 

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