SOCIETY

WHOSE TOWN IS IT?

Valley locals grumble as more and more Albertans buy in

ERIN MILLAR August 4 2008
SOCIETY

WHOSE TOWN IS IT?

Valley locals grumble as more and more Albertans buy in

ERIN MILLAR August 4 2008

WHOSE TOWN IS IT?

SOCIETY

Valley locals grumble as more and more Albertans buy in

ERIN MILLAR

It’s early evening on a hot summer Friday and the four-way stop in Radium Hot Springs is lined up halfway back to Calgary. Oil-rich Albertans enter Columbia Valley through this touristy town as they flock south to their summer playgrounds on the shores of Windermere Lake. The Columbia River flows through the glacier-fed lake, helping the water defy the effects of constant speedboat traffic. Surrounding snow-capped peaks in the Purcell Mountain Range make it a pristine setting. And best of all: it’s only three hours by car from Calgary.

For the past couple of decades, Alberta oil executives and NHL players have erected multi-million-dollar houses in place of the modest cabins that formerly lined the lake. Now the shores outside the town of Invermere—which is perched on a hill at the north end of the lake—are dotted with 5,000-sq.-footplus mansions designed to appear rustic, but with the added flourishes of elaborate boathouses, copper roofing and, in one case, a turret. Former Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Vernon sold his lakefront retreat on the east shore for $2.9 million three years ago and built a new place farther south. Since then, lakeside property values around Invermere have more than doubled to an average of $1.3 million near Vernon’s former abode, and $1.7 million on the more exclusive west shore, according to B.C. Assessment. Ross Newhouse, a long-time Invermere realtor, sold a single lot with a teardown cabin last week for $1.4 million.

But with the booming Alberta economy lining everyone’s pockets, young professionals and new families also want in on all the fun. Priced out of the market for lakeside cabins, this particular demographic set off a building boom of its own. The finishing touches are now being put on the first phase of Lake Windermere Pointe, a cluster of threestorey condo buildings right in town near the waterfront. And for those who can’t afford water access, a suburban-style development on a hill just east of town offers townhouses from just over $400,000 and lots for singlefamily homes from $100,000.

All of this development doesn’t come without some strife, of course. Permanent residents have long grumbled about rich Albertans taking over their town of 4,000. On hot summer weekends, parking spots at Sobey’s are in almost as much demand as space for speedboats on the lake as the population swells to 20,000. And while rising property prices benefit locals already in the market, new buyers can’t afford to get in. “There is always concern around affordability and people getting forced out over property taxes,” says Jim Norton, the area assessor for B.C. Assessment. His research suggests that 70 per cent of the properties in the areas surrounding Invermere are owned by Albertans.

It is this resentment that real estate developer Douglas McIntosh believes fuelled

opposition to the Lake Windermere Pointe project he’s co-developing with a Calgary partner. Although McIntosh bought 20 acres from the province back in 1990 for recreational development, construction only started in 2006 after years of negotiations with town council and court challenges fought by community members. His opponents emphasize environmental concerns: the building site on the most northern reaches of Windermere Lake is on a flood plain in the Columbia River wetlands, which are the largest intact wetlands in North America and were designated as a Wildlife Management Area by the B.C. government in 1996. Now that the first group of vacationers has moved into the $280,000 to $500,000 units, the fight is over. But that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill, which circulated a story about the parking garage flooding during spring runoff. “I had to invite the newspaper down to take a picture of our very dry garage,” McIntosh says. “People love rumours.”

Water and sewage are at the centre of another decade-long dispute on the east shore of the lake. Although some wealthy property owners in Mike Vernon’s old neighbourhood pay tens of thousands a year in property taxes, they don’t have garbage pickup, town water, or a sewage system. The result is a patchwork of septic tanks, some of which leak into the lake, according to a report sponsored in part by the B.C. Ministry of the Environment.

Ron Mason, who is a developer, launched Windermere Water and Sewage Company after investigating options for servicing his Copper Point development, which will straddle the highway above the east shore with a golf course, hotel, and resort-style condos. The private water and sewage utility will link private cabins and new developments to a centralized system that, according to Mason, will make it easier to monitor water quality and execute a holistic water conservation program. But the new system isn’t cheap.

On one stretch of the shore, each household will pay about $40,000, added to their property taxes over 25 years. Although property owners voted 68 per cent in favour of the plan, the minority is still voicing its opposition loudly.

In the meantime, an oversupply of condo units combined with recent economic uncertainty has led to a softened market, and construction is expected to grind to a halt as developers hold their breath. But they may not have to wait long. Delta Air Lines is launching a direct flight from Salt Lake City to Cranbrook (an hour’s drive away), with connections to Frankfurt and beyond, in December, just in time for the beginning of the winter season at nearby Panorama ski resort, offering the promise of a new flow of international tourists—and condo buyers.