A biosphere centre looks likely to move ahead in Tofino, despite a clamouring outcry from the proposed facility’s future neighbours.
Establishing an educational and event space celebrating the area’s designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve has been a long-term goal of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, which purchased a vacant, 881 square-metre lot at 301 Olsen Road in 2019 to transform that dream into reality.
The lot is currently zoned for a duplex or single family dwelling, meaning the CBT needs the district’s approval on a rezoning that would allow the proposed three-storey institutional facility to be built, but area residents have consistently voiced opposition.
During their Feb. 8 regular meeting, Tofino’s municipal council expressed support for the project pending a development agreement between the CBT and district staff.
The district’s senior planner Peter Thicke summed up comments received during a Dec. 14 public hearing, explaining that eight letters were received in opposition to the project and 39 in support of it along with three speaking in opposition and eight in support at the hearing.
He said staff are recommending that council move forward with the project, pending a development agreement that mandates that the building will have sprinklers, maintain the presented form and character and the driveway entrance will be located as far from Campbell Street as possible.
Coun. Cathy Thicke supported moving ahead, adding that staff’s report suggested support for the project greatly outweighs the opposition.
Coun. Tom Stere agreed.
“I did struggle with this rezoning. As everyone has noted, it has been a difficult one personally because we know almost all of the players that are involved,” Stere said. “On the one hand, you have the legitimate concerns of the immediate neighbourhood and on the other side you have a broad regional and local support for the proposed use of the land.”
He said his decision came down to the use of the land, which he deemed appropriate.
“The specific use of the land did not seem to be the major opposition. There were many concerns related to the physical building and some of the traffic issues that might be associated and the street parking,” he said.
Coun. Al Anderson said he also struggled with the proposal, but suggested the “tipping point” for him was the suggestion in staff’s report that the CBT would be working with the district to mitigate concerns.
“I really really struggled with this…I talked to lots of people who weren’t at the public hearing or didn’t put their opinions forward and I received the same sort of division around opinion on it,” Anderson said. “Whenever we’re looking at a zoning amendment, I always have to remind myself to go back to the basic question, which is the land use and I think this is an appropriate land use. It’s impact on the neighbourhood will be less than commercial.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster said he supported moving forward “with some hesitation.”
“This has been a tough one for me as well. I’ve flip flopped all over the place. I wonder what the decision would be if it wasn’t the CBT, thinking about past decisions we’ve made. I don’t think the concerns about the mass of the building have been alleviated. Regardless of the traffic report, I still see there being issues and I think parking is still going to be a problem,” McMaster said. “Having said that, the CBT’s probably going to be one of the better neighbours you could have.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers was also in favour of moving forward.
“I think the CBT has worked hard to make changes. I understand the concerns from the neighbours, but I think it will fit with the zoning when we’re looking at the land use,” she said.
Mayor Dan Law suggested he went back and forth on the decision as well.
“It was the unique situation in the Crab Dock neighbourhood that gave me the most pause and I did flip flop because of that…I looked very closely at parking and traffic and the massing and size and one of the things I looked at is what’s possible now,” he said noting the land’s current zoning would allow for a duplex and staff accommodation.
“For me, some of those comments from the immediate neighbours, which I took to heart, I looked at and ultimately came to the conclusion that the CBT itself and the use of the building and the traffic and parking will be, in some ways, a good neighbour on the whole.”
He added though that the proposal on the table would allow the facility to be 12 metres high, whereas the CBT’s presentations consistently suggested a height of 10.61 metres.
“I have a hesitation to fully support this unless there was a stronger language in the bylaw itself that would ensure that this building does not go to 12 metres,” he said.
Peter Thicke explained the sloped lot makes pinpointing a specific height tricky.
“Largely, these are not uncommon requests due to the complexities of building these kinds of buildings on sloped lots,” he said. “The complexities of a building this size often demand that there’s a little bit of wiggle room in order to accomodate the actual construction process.”
He suggested forcing a maximum height of 10.61 metres would likely lead to the CBT coming back to council at a later date requesting a variance for “an extra couple feet.”
Law said he would prefer having the CBT request a variance if they have to, but Chalmers disagreed, suggesting the CBT has done a lot of work already to put their proposal through.
“It’s asking a lot of an applicant that’s already been working quite hard on the application,” Chalmers said.
The district’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers said the development agreement would include language around staying consistent with the proposed designs.
“While it’s technically possible, it’s difficult to do a bit of a hard stop or a hard turn at third reading,” he said. “When we start getting into that kind of conversation, we’re starting to talk about hundreds of thousands of dollars in design costs and design work because this is not a single-family home, this is an institutional building.”
Council did not support Law’s suggestion to restrict the height and the decision to move ahead with the CBT’s proposal was unanimous.
“I think we’ve landed at the best place we can and we have a developer that wants to do the best they can in a neighbourhood and with their building. It’s not a developer that’s seeking to max out their height or anything like that,” Anderson said.
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