It hangs like an omen of disaster, a 450-metre cliff face formed from an ancient lava flow, threatening to break loose and engulf the village of Garibaldi in an avalanche of rocks and water from a nearby dam. That’s how the provincial government sees the danger to the small village 80 km north of Vancouver. The 40 people who live in the area would be happy to risk staying near the volcanic formation, known as the Barrier, but they no longer have that choice. The government decided to act before a disaster happens and is buying out property owners. It’s an offer they can’t refuse. The province won’t let them sell to anyone else.
The buy-out and relocation program has been so badly handled during the past year that it has led to a confrontation between the B.C. government and its mild-mannered ombudsman, Karl Friedmann. Friedmann, who spends hours beyond the usual 9 to 5 hearing complaints, is now engaged in his first serious brawl with the government that created him. He’s siding with the property owners but so far has failed to persuade the cabinet to give them more money. Unhappy with the glacial response of the cabinet last week, Friedmann went public and, in an unusual move, dumped the issue, in the form of a special report, into the partisan atmosphere of the B.C. legislature. The Social Credit government, reduced to hiring high-powered public relations types to polish its tarnished image, isn’t pleased with a latent poke at its credibility. The move was the last step Friedmann can legally take in attempting to solve a dispute and it is the first time it has happened since he got the job 18 months ago.
“The government started out with the best intentions to be foresightful and to take action about a potential disaster while there was still time left,” Friedmann said in his report. “But events took a wrong turn early in the process, producing a veritable bureaucratic nightmare for the people affected.” That nightmare included arbitrary deadlines for the evaluation and sale of land and an air of secrecy surrounding government decisions. And today, Garibaldi village is almost a ghost town. Its cottages are boarded up and covered with brave signs warning about guard dogs in a futile attempt to hold off the vandals since the government acted. Diane McDonald can see the shuttered houses across the Cheakamus River from the veranda of Alpine Lodge. She, her husband and relatives bought the lodge and 420 acres 10 years ago. The 15 cabins and general store are decaying now, the yellow and brown paint fading with the dream of building the land into a first-class resort.
Looking toward the Barrier, wreathed in clouds four kilometres away, McDonald says: “The government is playing with our lives. If they honestly believe that the Barrier is a danger, then they should whistle us out and haggle over expenses later.”
As she says this, a crew is improving the road to Whistler. The irony is shared by others living in the area: the highway, crowded in winter with skiers, runs through the danger zone. In the summer, carefully maintained hiking trails continue to lure visitors to the foot of the old volcanic formation. The McDonalds have been trying to find out what is going on in their valley for years now. Twice, while waiting for the leisurely studies on the dangers of a landslide to be completed, her husband has parked a log skidder on railway tracks, halting a train carrying the premier of B.C. Last time, Doug McDonald got a chat with Bill Bennett and the eventual release of a report finished two years earlier.
The family has been offered $1,863,000 for its buildings and land but want more now that the owner of a smaller lodge was offered $61,000 an acre compared to the $2,800 an acre they could get for selling their land. The different prices paid for land and the success some owners have had getting their property excluded from the danger zone have caused bitterness and ended some friendships. Developer Jack Fenton managed to get a new subdivision excluded after he showed that the houses would be above any tidal wave caused by a slide crashing into a nearby lake. “I was able to get out but the way this whole thing has been handled has been terrible,” he said, reflecting on the strains caused among people accustomed to helping each other and on the dark hints about his connections to the government.
By week’s end, as spring runoff thundered over the cliff, the Barrier was still holding up. For their part, the McDonalds were still holding out, and Friedmann had apparently won the first round in a strange publicity battle between a government and its ombudsman.
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