Stettler County accused of fast-tracking controversial 750-site RV park
Head of planning department says the process followed the letter of the law
Critics of a controversial development in central Alberta are alleging the project was rushed through Stettler County's planning department, despite broad and vocal opposition to the plan.
The 750-unit Paradise Shores RV Park at Buffalo Lake has been contentious ever since the developer, RV Sites Canada, unveiled its plans in January and started marketing the project — and pre-selling 35-year leases — at the Calgary RV Expo.
At that point, the developer had not yet submitted an application to the county, but the project has since been approved and the first leasees have moved in.
It is, however, scheduled to go before a development appeal board on Sept. 18.
Yet despite the flood of calls, emails and letters expressing concern with the RV park, the Stettler County planning department followed an "unconventional process" for getting the project approved quickly, according to the head of the planning department in notes from a meeting between the county and the developer obtained by opponents through a freedom of information request.
'Compromises to the usual process'
Those notes, from a meeting on Feb. 27 between Johan van der Bank, the head of the planning department, the county's chief administrative officer Yvette Cassidy, and Rick Halpern, the man in charge of construction for Paradise Shores, show van der Bank was willing to facilitate the developer's push for a fast approval.
"In the context of the potential benefits of the proposed development to the county, and to try to facilitate your 'aggressive approach,' as people perceive it, I was willing to make certain compromises to the usual process, by referring the applications out to the public before council even saw them, and by trusting that you will deliver on your commitments to undertake the necessary studies and government approvals as we moved along," says van der Bank in the notes.
We are basically trying to expedite a process that can typically take nine months to a year, into a three- to four-month timeline.- Johan van der Bank, planning department head
He says that he should have "tried to slow down this process back in January, and RV Sites Canada should have started their planning process sooner or been going at a slower pace."
In an email to Halpern and RV Sites Canada owner David Hamm just days before that meeting — also included in the 3,742 pages of documents obtained through FOIP — van der Bank said he was "pushing the envelope."
"To explain this to you — we are basically trying to expedite a process that can typically take nine months to a year, into a three- to four-month timeline," he wrote.
Planner worried before council meeting
That Feb. 27 meeting was called by van der Bank, who says in the meeting notes that he was up until 4 a.m. worrying ahead of an upcoming Stettler County committee meeting.
"I think that at the end of this, there are certain things that could come back to bite us in the ass, and just make the road ahead more painful, both at Friday's meeting and at the public hearing," says van der Bank.
"And therefore, I want to discuss with you some options that we can present to the committee on Friday and to council at the public hearing, that will enable them to offer the public some respite, something that council can say: 'We listened to the public and we made the developer change some aspects of his plan.'"
In addition to moving the project along quickly, there are messages between van der Bank, Halpern and Hamm that include invitations to dinner and meeting van der Bank's family.
Planner responds to allegations
Van der Bank would not agree to an interview for this article, but he submitted a rebuttal to the allegations for consideration by the appeal board in which he strongly denies any wrongdoing.
"I was willing to allow the bylaw and the development permit review processes to occur parallel rather than the more conventional process that would have had these studies follow a series of separate timelines," he writes.
"The fact is that, although I allowed an 'unconventional' or parallel process, I am confident that the steps required under applicable provincial legislation and county bylaws were followed."
Van der Bank says the issue should be whether all relevant information was provided to the municipal planning commission in order for it to make an informed decision. He argues that was the case.
"These allegations are serious and put not only the autonomy of the county's development authority and ultimately the county administration, but also my professional reputation and my character at risk," he writes.
When contacted, Hamm said he had no comment and did not want to affect the process ahead of the appeal board hearing.
Residents fear potential 'bias'
Two people who filed appeals against the project did not want to talk to CBC News, fearing they could jeopardize the process. Their filings on behalf of the Rochon Sands Heights Community Association say they are concerned about "a reasonable apprehension of bias" in the recommendation to approve the project.
"It is the appellant's position that the bias of the designated officer unduly influenced the decision of the [municipal planning commission] to exercise its discretion and approve the development permit with the conditions that were applied," reads one of its appeal submissions.
Other concerns raised by residents include the size and scope of the project and its impact on the area, as well as questions about whether the developer met its legal requirements and is abiding by conditions placed on its development permit approval.
It sounds like he's intentionally putting himself out on a limb despite public opinion.- Justin Stevens, who lives near the project
Justin Stevens lives on the same quarter of land where the third phase of Paradise Shores will be built. He moved to the area five years ago and never imagined something of the scale of the RV park — which will also include a water park, restaurant and store — would be built nearby.
He's not one of the appellants in the appeal, but he is troubled by some of what he sees in the freedom of information documents. Stevens shared the entire 3,742 pages of documents with CBC News, the authenticity of which was confirmed through the county.
"It sounds like he's intentionally putting himself out on a limb despite public opinion on how it's being rushed and fast-tracked and studies not being done," he said of van der Bank.
County reeve says it's not his business
Stevens, who has lived in small communities his whole life, wasn't as concerned as some about the more personal messages between van der Bank and the developers, saying that's how things are done in small towns.
But he says that kind of informal connection didn't apply when he tried to raise concerns with his elected officials.
"A lot of the responses I've gotten are political talk, if you will," said Stevens about his conversations with politicians and county staff.
"It's very non-committal."
Larry Clarke is the reeve of Stettler County and said he has nothing to do with managing county employees.
"As council, we have one employee and that's the CAO, Yvette Cassidy, and so that would be who you would need to talk to if it comes to discussing any of her employees," he said. "Right now, this piece is really completely out of my hands."
Cassidy was unable to speak to the issue because she is on the appeal board, according to county spokesperson Niki Thorsteinsson.
Clarke said he had not read through any of the freedom of information documents, even the ones included in an appeal board package posted to the county website.
He did not answer questions about whether he had concerns that the information council was presented by administration was impartial or complete, as alleged in the appeal submission from the Rochon Sands Heights Community Association.
"I feel that the decisions we made, it was a suggestion or it could be maybe deemed as a suggestion. But it was still up to either the country council or the municipal planning board to make their decisions based on how they interpreted the bylaws, et cetera," he said.
The project was subjected to an inter-municipal dispute resolution process after nearby summer villages contested the county's approval of the project.
That dispute was resolved by reducing the number of stalls in the RV Park from 1,000.
No formal complaints to provincial body
Roy Wright is the chair of the disciplinary committee for the Alberta Professional Planners Institute, which governs the practice in the province. Van der Bank is a registered planner with the institute.
Wright said he could not discuss a specific case, and the specific topics of Paradise Shores and van der Bank were not raised in speaking with CBC News. However, the institute did confirm it has not received any formal complaints against van der Bank in relation to Paradise Shores.
Wright says planners are expected to serve the "public interest" — something he acknowledges is hard to define.
"It's kind of a balancing test when you're looking at public interest," he said.
"We look at fair, inclusive and transparent decisions. Hopefully we've got a significant majority of people supporting that. It's a set of basically shared values.
The Stettler County appeal board will hear arguments about Paradise Shores on Sept. 18 and 19.
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- An earlier version of this story said the appeal would be heard on Sept. 17 and 18. The appeal will be heard on Sept. 18 and 19.Sep 17, 2018 9:50 AM MT