Cathers still steamed over hot springs condo plans

Garry Umbrich's proposal to build condominiums at the Takhini Hot Springs has never been popular with nearby residents, who fear the development will ruin the neighbourhood's rural charm.

Garry Umbrich’s proposal to build condominiums at the Takhini Hot Springs has never been popular with nearby residents, who fear the development will ruin the neighbourhood’s rural charm.

No surprise, then, that Brad Cathers, MLA for Lake Laberge, spent two weeks in the legislature dumping on the plan, which awaits a cabinet decision.

Cathers has raised several objections about the project. One, he asserts, is that it would run afoul of land-use rules. “Under current zoning, they are not allowed to build a duplex, much less a condominium,” said Cathers on October 18.

But that’s not so, according to George Stetkiewicz, Yukon’s director of land planning.

The current zoning is “silent” on the matter of whether apartment-style buildings are allowed, said Stetkiewicz. And the local land-use plan, which sets higher-level rules, allows multi-family dwellings.

It’s true that neither the zoning nor the land-use plan make any reference to condos. That’s because “condos are a type of land ownership, not a type of building,” said Stetkiewicz. Strictly speaking, they’re apartments that are owned, rather than rented.

The term “condo” conjures images of multi-storey apartment blocks. Umbrich’s plans are more modest. He envisions 20 households. Some units would stand by themselves, while others would be clustered in twos or threes.

Condos were never imagined by residents involved in the drafting of the local land-use plan, said Cathers. Instead, a group of Takhini Hot Springs shareholders, bought out by Umbrich in 2008 following a court battle, envisioned the creation of “co-housing”- communal housing that would feature shared cooking and living facilities.

Stetkiewicz concedes the “philosophical underpinnings” may have changed for denser developments in the neighbourhood. But these intentions were never spelled out in the plan.

Under Umbrich’s plan, two-thirds of the 123-hectare property would be kept as a nature preserve. Developed land would be spaced out in distinct “nodes” that would be surrounded by several hundred metres of forest buffer and only connected by foot trails. Residents and visitors would park at a central parking lot.

These residential lots would provide Umbrich with the cash to upgrade the hot springs’ campgrounds and to build a swanky, 80-room lodge and spa. He pitches the entire development as a green venture, and envisions it one day being powered by geothermal energy.

Umbrich has applied to split the property into lots smaller than the current 10-hectare limit. But if these plans are rejected by cabinet, he could still subdivide the property into 24 residential lots and sell if off to developers.

If this occurred, Umbrich has warned, it’s unlikely that most of the land would remain greenspace.

Cathers contests whether the subdivision scheme would work. Hilly terrain would prevent access roads from being built to lots at the far corner of the property, he asserted.

Stetkiewicz disagrees. “You can put tea houses on hilltops,” he said. “The lands are generally suitable for the intended purposes.”

Details would need to be vetted during a review. But, “looking at it from 60,000 feet, it looks close.”

Lastly, Cathers argues that current zoning requires the land to be primarily used for commercial, not residential, developments. But Stetkiewicz doesn’t see this as a difficult obstacle to overcome, either. “I think it’s a viable option he’s proposing,” he said.

In the spring, lands branch Minister Patrick Rouble promised Umbrich a decision within several months, according to Cathers. Yet no decision has been made.

Rouble, when pressed by Cathers to explain the delay, offered vague remarks about the importance of building local businesses – suggesting that he’s in favour of the project.

“It’s important to see a growth in economic activity … and when there are opportunities, we really do need to seize them,” Rouble said October 4.

“The Yukon Party ran on a platform of increasing responsible economic prosperity throughout the territory, and that’s certainly what we’re going to do,” Rouble said a day later.

That later led Cathers to charge, on October 19, that Rouble “was singing from the applicant’s song sheet.”

“It sounds like he is ignoring the facts, ignoring the advice of officials, ignoring the public, and has already decided to make a decision in favour of the corporation.”

“If this is a blatant cut-and-dried question,” Rouble responded, “why didn’t he address it when he was the minister? Why didn’t he give it the closure he wants to see put to it? Why didn’t he address this, as he had the responsibility to do so, when he was the minister responsible?”

Cathers was lands branch minister before he quit Premier Dennis Fentie’s government last autumn over the ATCO energy privatization scandal to sit as an independent.

Cathers never had a chance to reply in the legislature. But, in an interview, he said that the proposal had not yet reached his desk while he held the lands portfolio.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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