Luxury Sunshine Coast development pits city against citizens in expensive court battles
Resident with mobility challenges says project discriminates because she uses car to enjoy waterfront
Officials in the quiet seaside town of Gibsons, B.C., are crying uncle after facing dozens of expensive legal challenges against a controversial waterfront development.
Last week, the Human Rights Tribunal dismissed a complaint related to the George Hotel, a project town councillors approved for rezoning in October 2015.
The development features two mid-rise towers with a 118-room hotel, a conference centre, and 35 luxury condominiums — a significant departure for the quaint town that once served as the set for the popular Canadian sitcom The Beachcombers.
The complainant in the case, Dorothy Riddle, claimed the project discriminates against her on the basis of physical disability because she will no longer be able to drive up to the waterfront and enjoy a panoramic view of the ocean from the comfort of her car.
In the decision, tribunal member Emily Ohler notes that Riddle suffers from a condition that causes severe pain after walking only about 12 metres.
Riddle's complaint is the latest in a string of objections filed against the project in a bid to stop it.
The town's mayor, Wayne Rowe, said the project attracted a lot of attention from the moment it was proposed in 2013, with many expressing support. The development is expected to bring in revenues and jobs during the construction phase and beyond.
But many continue to oppose the project, claiming it will destroy the peaceful, small-town feel of the area. Others accuse the town of exchanging valuable waterfront property for corporate interests.
Town officials say opponents like Riddle have had ample opportunity to express their concerns. They say it's time to move on so the town can reap the benefits of the project.
The development would close down the road the complainant currently uses to access her viewpoint.
It would be replaced by a graded walkway to a pedestrian seawall, elevators and other features that the town argued would make it more accessible for those with mobility issues.
According to the decision, Riddle claims those adaptations wouldn't be enough to accommodate her needs because she would have to walk further than she is able to — although the decision also puts that claim into question.
"The impact is to some extent in relation to Ms. Riddle's personal preferences, for a particular view, proximity, and for experiencing the location from the comfort of her own car," Ohler said in her decision.
"Gibsons is only required to provide reasonable accommodation, not perfect accommodation."
But officials with the Town of Gibsons say challenges like these cost the small municipality dearly.
$80K in costs
The town issued a written statement regarding the decision, explaining this one case cost over $80,000 in legal fees, expert reports and staff time to defend.
The town's chief administrative officer, Emanuel Machado, said this latest case is one of almost 30 complaints about the project filed through legal challenges addressing various aspects of the project, the majority of them through the B.C. Ombudsperson's office.
Machado said other challenges have gone through B.C. Supreme Court, the B.C. Environmental Appeal Board, and one as a professional misconduct complaint through the Planning Institute of B.C.
"We're a small town with a limited amount of staff. So it's had a huge impact on our day-to-day operations," he said.
Staff are preparing a report summarizing the costs of all the legal challenges, but Gibsons Mayor Wayne Rowe said he thinks the costs probably come to about $200,000 — a "substantial cost to us, for sure."
Both Machado and Rowe said Riddle was one of hundreds of people who attended public hearings and submitted feedback for the project in writing.
"They've made their views known, they've fought their fight, but the decision has been made," Rowe said of the project's opponents.
"To try to just kind of whittle away and cause delay and expense really isn't helpful for our community."
Troy DeSouza, a lawyer who often represents local governments in matters concerning municipal law, said going through the Human Rights Tribunal to try to stop a development is "a humungous waste of taxpayers' dollars."
"That really should have been dismissed at the very intake level," Desouza said, adding that municipalities don't have much choice in addressing complaints through the tribunal.
"It's very problematic to small municipalities or any municipality that is essentially held hostage to this process."
DeSouza instead advocates for those with "legitimate" legal concerns regarding municipal decisions and processes to go through B.C. Supreme Court, where those cases are traditionally disputed.
There, he explains, the courts can more swiftly dismiss "frivolous" cases and municipalities can partly recover legal costs on behalf of taxpayers if the complainant is not successful.
Nathalie Baker, a municipal lawyer who has successfully fought cases for complainants against various Lower Mainland municipalities, agreed that challenging a development through the Human Rights Tribunal was unusual.
But Baker emphasized the importance of opposing municipal decisions through legal means.
"The right to have decisions reviewed is fundamental. You have to have somebody who can oversee decisions made by your government," she said.
Machado said the Town of Gibsons will deliver its report on the costs of legal challenges related to the George Hotel development this fall.
Construction is expected to begin this September.