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Backlash begins against new Riverdale lots

Gerard Bluteau, 72, has one great pleasure in life: strolling through the forest trails near his Riverdale Manor home, taking a seat at a bench he has built and feeding crushed walnut bits to chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

Gerard Bluteau, 72, has one great pleasure in life: strolling through the forest trails near his Riverdale Manor home, taking a seat at a bench he has built and feeding crushed walnut bits to chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

But that pleasure could soon disappear if Whitehorse city planners have their way. They want to cut down the trees where Bluteau and other elderly residents take their daily stroll and build houses in their place.

The area in question is a 4.7-hectare swath of forest between Boswell Crescent and Firth Road in Riverdale. Sure, there’s plenty of forest nearby. But Bluteau can’t walk far.

On good days, as many as a dozen elderly folks join him in his stroll through the woods. Bluteau started hanging birdhouses there four years ago, and the area now bustles with birds when he arrives in the late morning.

“It’s something that’s pretty precious for us,” he said. “We have so little to look forwards to - especially people who don’t have anybody, like me. My family back east have all passed away. My wife died 11 years ago.”

He’s starting a petition. And he’s not the only one upset. About five years ago, Riverdale residents howled at the city’s plans to in-fill several green spaces on the neighbourhood’s fringes. The city backed off.

But when the city unveiled its latest development plans in late February, the in-fills had returned.

“I’m totally ready for a big fight over it,” said Laura Hansen. She lives on Boswell, and her property backs on to the green space.

She’s already called Ted Staffen, MLA for Riverdale North. He and Glenn Hart, MLA for Riverdale South, both fought the original in-fill plans. Staffen remains opposed, said Hansen. She has also contacted the Riverdale Community Association.

Expect the howling to pick up shortly.

The city sent letters on February 22 to Riverdale residents, informing them of the proposed development that have yet to be approved by council. But Hansen said that she and her neighbours never received copies.

Hansen bought her home 13 years ago. At the time, one of the property’s selling points was that it backed onto the forest, which remains, for now, zoned as green space.

“You pay top dollar because it’s on green space,” she said. “It’s just not fair.”

But realtors and house-hunters would counter there’s plenty of unfairness in the current arrangement.

The shortage of residential lots in Whitehorse has driven up the price of properties to a point where it’s hard for young couples to afford a first home. And those who can afford a home can take a number: realtors have double-digit lists of clients.

Mid-priced homes, with prices between $200,000 to $400,000, have virtually disappeared from the market.

And new lots are soon snapped-up. When the city held a lottery draw for 12 lots in Takhini North on Tuesday, it had 71 applicants.

This could all be bad news for the local economy. It’s hard to attract new residents when there’s no place to live.

What caused this shortage? In the view of Mike Racz, president of the Yukon Real Estate Association, it’s partly because the city backed-down on plans to build in-fills in places like Riverdale five years ago. Now, we’re paying the price.

Pent-up demand should ease after the city’s next big new neighbourhood, Whistle Bend, is ready in 2012. Until then, the simplest solution is to build in-fill in existing neighbourhoods, said city planner Mike Gau.

Under the city’s original scheme, the Riverdale in-fill would have added 41 single-family houses to the market. Given the current push to build higher-density homes, some of these lots would likely be zoned for duplexes or multi-family dwellings if the project went ahead, said Gau.

From a planner’s point of view, Bluteau’s bird-feeding haven is the perfect place to build a new street. It’s close to existing roads and water and sewage pipes, making it cheaper to build than a new neighbourhood.

And Mayor Bev Buckway wants a greener city. Part of that means cutting back on sprawl.

Realtors have attacked the city’s push for denser developments, with more duplexes and fewer single-family lots. They say this isn’t what people want.

The results of the recent Takhini North lottery may support this assertion: the vast majority of bidders vied for one property that was one of the few single-family lots on offer.

The city’s been aware for some time there’s a shortage of single-family lots, said Gau. But it needs to consider the “character” of duplex-heavy Takhini, he said.

Still, the next phase of Takhini North will have 30 single-family lots and just 12 duplexes, said Gau. “We made some adjustments,” he said.

And new additions to the Ingram subdivision will bring another 37 single-family lots later this year.

Both Hansen and Bluteau wonder how a city as large as Whitehorse could have such difficulty finding space for new homes without eating into existing greenspace.

But about one-third of the land within city limits is considered too mountainous to build on. Take away First Nation land, greenspace and the oil-contaminated tank farm property and you’re left with few places suitable for development within city limits.

There are several other in-fills proposed in Riverdale: behind Grey Mountain School, on the corner of Lewes Boulevard and Nisutlin Drive, and along Nisutlin Drive between Selkirk Street and Blanchard Road.

There are also eight in-fills proposed for Porter Creek and one each for Crestview, Hillcrest and the downtown.

Even without these developments, there should be plenty of greenery left in Whitehorse, said Gau. The city’s draft official community plan has five parks, including an expanded Chadburn Park near Riverdale.

The idea to revive Riverdale’s controversial in-fill didn’t come from city planners, said Gau. It came from residents who touted the idea at one of the city’s public meetings, held over the past year to review the official community plan. But he concedes the idea was “disputed” by others.

It will be up to city councillors to decide whether to proceed with the Riverdale in-fill. “Now we’re getting down to the hard decisions,” said Gau.

Residents have until April 1 to submit comments to the city about the draft plan.

Contact John Thompson at