Proposed housing development creating heavy debate in B.C.'s Kootenays
Galloway Lands developer says locals won’t work with him; local chief questions First Nations engagement
A proposal to develop 185 hectares of forest and green space near Fernie, B.C., has incited months of heavy debate as the East Kootenay region deals with an influx of new residents.
At the centre of the debate is a parcel of land located between Mount Fernie Provincial Park and the Fernie Alpine Resort.
Right now, the land is privately owned, but residents have grown accustomed to using an extensive system of Nordic skiing, hiking, and mountain biking trails that twist through the property.
The proposed Galloway Lands development would see up to 75 single-family homes built on the land. The developer says the trail system will be maintained and publicly accessible, and about 70 per cent of the property would be left forested.
But critics of the proposal have questioned how the project would impact the environment, and suggest the project would put pressure on local roads.
"Our primary concern is access to the development," said Jay Zammit, president of the Fernie Snow Valley Community Association.
He pointed out that Fernie is only accessible by one major road, Highway 3, which he says is already overwhelmed.
"With this added development, it makes it extra precarious with respect to wildfires, emergency egress and just day-to-day traffic," he said.
Zammit also expressed concern over the development's plan to use wells for drinking water instead of connecting to the city of Fernie's water supply.
The debate over the proposal comes as the region sees rapid growth. Fernie's population jumped 17 per cent from 2016 to 2021, and every municipality in the East Kootenay has grown over the last five years as more people moved to the region.
Developer claims 'nobody would engage us'
The development is also facing opposition from the Tobacco Plains Indian Band, which has raised concerns about Indigenous consultation.
"We question the Galloway Lands team's efforts in regards to the engagement process that came to us," Tobacco Plains Indian Band Chief Heidi Gravelle said at a regional district meeting on May 12, further voicing concern over how the development would affect wildlife.
Reto Barrington is the president of Handshake Holdings Inc., which is behind the development project. He noted that the property has already been logged, and most existing trail use is technically trespassing.
"It's not a pristine wilderness," Barrington said. "The development would actually reinforce environmental protection and public access values rather than risking the potential of it being logged again."
Handshake Holdings has produced detailed reports on all areas of concern, according to Barrington. He said those reports show that effects on traffic and wildlife will be minimal, and that the development's water plan is feasible.
"I have no idea what the homeowners' association is talking about," he said. "It seems like they haven't chosen to read any of the materials we've produced."
Barrington alleged he'd made a concerted effort to seek input from the Tobacco Plains Indian Band, but they stopped communicating with him. He said local groups have not been willing to work with him.
"Right from the very beginning, nobody would engage us," he said. "We have been uniquely shut out."
At a May 12 meeting of the planning and development services committee for the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK), delegates from the community spoke out both in favour of and against the project. At the end of the meeting, directors voted to recommend that the proposal should not proceed.
But at a board of directors meeting the next day, some directors changed their minds, and the board ultimately voted to send the proposal through to a public hearing.
"We certainly have heard a lot of views … the majority were not in favour," said Rob Gay, chair of the RDEK.
"Is that really all the views? … The public hearing will give us that."
The public hearing will take place over the course of three nights on June 14, 15 and 16 via Zoom.
CBC British Columbia has launched a Cranbrook bureau to help tell the stories of the Kootenays with reporter Brendan Coulter. Story ideas and tips can be sent to email@example.com.