Spruce Hill subdivision at ‘stake’

Paul Warner and Betty Sutton moved 11 years ago from downtown Whitehorse to Spruce Hill, a sprawling country neighbourhood on the southern edge of town, for the peace, quiet and beautiful views.

Paul Warner and Betty Sutton moved 11 years ago from downtown Whitehorse to Spruce Hill, a sprawling country neighbourhood on the southern edge of town, for the peace, quiet and beautiful views.

They’re understandably concerned, then, to learn that a mineral exploration outfit plans to drill for copper and gold near their home later this month.

The land surrounding their home is designated as greenspace under Whitehorse’s Official Community Plan. But that hasn’t stopped Arcturus Ventures from staking a big swath of land that includes the entire Spruce Hill subdivision, which is found just past the Wolf Creek campground on the Alaska Highway.

The secluded neighbourhood has about 30 houses. Each sits on half a hectare of land.

The couple’s home is perched atop a ridge. It has a lovely view of a nearby meadow, framed by the trees and a mountain beyond.

“Just what we want to see: a drill-rig,” said Warner.

“This whole thing about having mining in city limits is, to me, nuts.”

“The Yukon’s pretty big,” said Sutton. “There’s a whole lot of places to mine where you’re not in someone’s backyard.”

Last summer, the couple could see a tent and diesel generator set up less than a kilometre away from their living room window. Sutton walked past one day and found a man sending electric shocks into the ground – part of Arcturus’ induced polarization tests for geological anomalies.

The man was “very nice,” said Sutton, noting he cautioned her to keep her dog away, lest it be zapped.

A helicopter would periodically whirl in and drop off equipment.

Other residents have complained about trees cut along their hiking trails. That could be at odds with the city’s bylaws, which prohibits clearing land without a development permit.

Arcturus doesn’t yet have one, but it will need a permit to begin drilling.

And it looks like the company will need to hack through a thicket of red tape to obtain one, making its plans to drill this summer look a lot less likely.

Ultimately, Arcturus would need to persuade city politicians to open up its Official City Plan and lift the protected designation of the land it wants to drill.

Even if councillors agreed, this process would stretch over several months and involve at least two public hearings, said planning manager Mike Gau. “It’s a very elaborate process,” he said.

Arcturus also needs an exploration permit from the territory’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources to start drilling. It doesn’t have that yet, either.

And the drilling plans may require a green light from the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. The company hasn’t submitted a proposal to the board yet, either.

For the NDP’s leader, Liz Hanson, the Spruce Hill controversy shines a light on two problems: the Yukon government’s reluctance to ban mineral exploration within city limits, and the territory’s current policy of free staking.

“There is a real sense of anxiety that they could wake up one day with a major development in their backyard. We could all wake up to that reality,” she said.

Hanson extended that warning to Patrick Rouble, the mining minister.

“Maybe some day the minister will find that someone has staked a claim on his property because, under our system of free entry, virtually any land can be staked.”

Rouble responded that he’s “confident that Yukon has appropriate regulatory processes in place.”

The Spruce Hill controversy also brings to mind two other conflicts brought about by mining within municipal boundaries.

Last year, Dawson City’s council fought, without success, the plans of Darrell Carey to build his Slinky placer mine near the Midnight Dome neighbourhood. Yukon’s assessment board rejected the project, but the Yukon government reversed the decision.

And, in Whitehorse, the cross-country ski club raised concerns over how Mount McIntyre’s trails have been staked by miners.

The matter of staking within Whitehorse’s city limits is already being hashed out by city and government officials, said Gau. “We’ve been working with the Yukon government to narrow down where it might be acceptable.” He expects to see a proposal made to council within the next few months.

It appears that changing Yukon’s free-entry system of mining is a non-starter for the Yukon Party. Rouble didn’t mention the matter this week, but last year, he extolled its virtues as “a system that allows the entrepreneurial spirit to exist, but it in no way reduces anyone else’s legitimate rights.”

Some mineral claims within city limits were first claimed as long ago as 1902, noted Rouble.

Arcturus staked the land surrounding Spruce Hill six or seven years ago, according to Jesse Devost, a spokeman with Energy, Mines and Resources. However, others have drilled the same area as far back as 1969, according to the company’s website.

Arcturus representatives were at Toronto’s annual mining conference and were unavailable for comment this week.

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