Parkland County residents raise environmental concerns over $22M church development near Chickakoo Lake

Residents living near Parkland County’s Chickakoo Lake Recreation Area are rallying against a multi-million dollar development they say threatens the area’s environmental future.

Group concerned about water application for 6,355 cubic metres per year

Residents are concerned about how much water the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre development will draw once completed. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Residents living near Parkland County's Chickakoo Lake Recreation Area are rallying against a multi-million dollar development they say threatens the area's environmental future.

A group opposed to the massive redevelopment of a retreat centre has organized an online petition with almost 2,000 signatures and a GoFundMe to raise money for legal representation.

"It is about the preservation of quality of life for our grandchildren and their grandchildren," said Deborah Bloomer, who started a Facebook page for the Chickakoo Water Protection Group.

At issue is a $22 million redevelopment of the Mount Carmel Spirituality Centre situated in the park. An application for a license to draw 6,355 cubic metres of water per year for a well is before the Alberta Environment and Parks regulatory approvals office, according to a public notice.

The group opposed to the application is concerned about the environmental impact the proposed complex's water use will have on the lake and watershed. 

Bloomer said she doesn't believe officials have done their due diligence in studying the issue and its potential ramifications.

"None of them have shown the heart or mind to protect this area," said Bloomer, who wants an environmental impact study conducted and to add more restrictions.

The Chickakoo Lake Recreation Area is a park 14 kilometre northwest of Stony Plain. It features 480 acres of woodland and lakes.

The lake complex is designated as an Environmentally Significant Area by the municipality. Its environmental sensitivity is cited as "very high" in Parkland County's 2014 Environmental Conservation Master Plan, highlighting a high groundwater sensitivity and areas of sensitive soils.

In a statement to CBC News, Parkland County said administration is ensuring the development adheres to the conditions of its development permit and provincial environmental requirements.

It said the development permit is too late to reverse as the decision was made years ago.

An artist's rendering of the 74,000 square foot redevelopment of the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre, featuring a new church and underground parking. (Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre)

The site has operated as a religious assembly for decades. The Canadian Carmelite Charitable Society, run by clergy of the Catholic Church, took over operations in 2017 to run spiritual retreats at the location, which includes a church hall, meeting rooms, dining hall, and cabins.

The proposed project will replace the church hall and meeting rooms building as well as construct a guesthouse, removing cabins and trailers. Underground parking and a walkway between the church and guesthouse are also planned.

Parkland County administration approved the development permit to transform the facility in July 2018. It received an appeal that was later withdrawn.

A lengthy news release posted by the municipality Wednesday outlines the rationale for the decision, noting that the development was deemed appropriate and reasonably compatible with surrounding properties.

The size and scale of the new facility does not necessitate a change in land use, it said, and is not expected to accommodate any more guests than what was previously approved.

The news release states that the municipality does not have jurisdiction over water, which  requires a Water Act approval from the province.

'Passing the buck'

Genevieve Olivier says she wants the county council to do more to address their concerns.

"There's a lot of passing the buck happening right now," she said. 

"This is a sensitive area, the water levels go down every year. We need people to do something about it."

Olivier is also concerned by the light pollution and traffic along the area's dirt roads the proposed church complex will bring.

The group also takes issue with the way the public was notified, saying the initial development permit received little public consultation while the more recent notice for the water application was only printed in a free community newspaper on March 16.

"It was in this tiny paper and it was a little blip," Olivier said.

The matter is expected to be discussed at Parkland County's committee of the whole on Tuesday.