Gibsons council's committee of the whole voted 3-2 Tuesday to endorse the form and character of the George Hotel and Residences, giving staff direction to continue with environmental and economic impact studies based on the revised design.
An estimated 300 people attended the March 25 meeting at the Gibsons Public Market, with almost half of them standing or sitting outside on the patio, watching through glass doors and listening on outdoor speakers as council debated the controversial project.
The new design includes a stepped-back hotel roof and facade on Gower Point Road, along with other changes aimed to address issues raised by the Town's advisory planning commission in November.
Despite those revisions, councillors Lee Ann Johnson and Dan Bouman expressed strong opposition to staff's recommendation to accept the new design.
"I am truly astonished that this height of a building would be proposed on the waterfront," Johnson said, adding there was "no justification" for it.
The harbour area plan process, Johnson said, set 10.5 metres (35 feet) as "a concrete and specific height limitation" for the waterfront. "This building clearly breaches that to such an extent that it, I think, is shocking to many of us that this could even be considered."
Staff presented no revised measurements for the highest points of either building, last reported at 25.5 metres (85 feet) above Gower Point Road and 36 metres (124 feet) from sea level for the hotel, and 19 metres (63 feet) above Gower Point Road and 30 metres (100 feet) from sea level for the condo building.
Johnson opened the debate by saying she was "deeply concerned about moving ahead in any way" until aquifer and geotechnical studies were completed, as it would weaken the Town's negotiating position with the developer.
Bouman backed Johnson's stand, saying the design would have to change anyway after the aquifer study results come in.
"Anyone with a calculator who can add and subtract two-digit numbers can figure out from the published information that the upper corners of the foundation of the building are in the aquifer," he said. "So it seems to me that it's not very enjoyable to see people polarizing to an extensive degree over something that's obviously not going to happen in the way it looks in the images."
Bouman said he was surprised by staff's recommendation and noted that no member of the administrative team working on the project had been part of the harbour plan process that "had a large degree of public involvement."
Had staff been part of that process, he said, "they would have a little more sensitivity than to come to the conclusion that the largest building on the Sunshine Coast - a building that has nothing in common with any other building on the Sunshine Coast - could be placed in an area where a community planning process put a high priority on protecting people's viewscapes, which means protecting the value of their properties, and protecting the form and character of the Town."
Speaking to the staff recommendation, Mayor Wayne Rowe said it was simply one more step in considering the application, adding there would be no sense for staff to proceed if council did not support the project's form and character.
Taking up that point, Coun. Charlene SanJenko asked director of planning Andre Boel what would happen if council stopped the process, pending the other reports.
Boel said he would still need clarity on the scale of the buildings to determine environmental and economic impacts. "It would not be very practical for a review process not to have any clarity tonight," he said.
"I know we're talking a whole lot about height, and I agree it's a big building," SanJenko said. "But I also think we have to look at it in its entirety and the experience that it brings to the harbourfront."
Saying that unlike Johnson and Bouman he was "thinking about the future, not today," Coun. Gerry Tretick said the most important issue was finding "a way to have financial sustainability" for the Town.
"There are towns in Canada that have ceased to exist because they have not been able to adapt. I don't want to see that happen here," Tretick said. "In principle I believe a hotel on the waterfront will be part of the answer - it won't be the total answer - but it will be a move to adapt, and that's the key word: adapt."
The alternative, Tretick said later in the meeting, will be "huge tax increases."
Bouman, however, rejected Tretick's "doomsday talk," saying the Town "has survived because of its character and its people," and is more economically stable than many other coastal communities.
"I don't think we should sell out to something we don't all agree on," he said.
Council, he said, should ask the developer to "come back with something that will garner a whole lot higher level of public support than the project currently does."
In his concluding comments before the vote, Rowe noted the height of the proposed hotel had gone up "since the first rendition, which would have been a solid building right across Winn Road," but that was a trade-off, he said, for reconfiguring Winn Road as a public view corridor.
He also noted the official community plan clearly states that it is "a living document that should respond to changing circumstances," and was started 10 years ago, while the harbour plan was started five years ago. "But clearly there is significant support in the community for this particular project, which indicates that what may have been perceived in the plan five years ago may not fit today."
While council is going to rely on engineers "to tell us what can be done and can't be done," he suggested council keep an open mind.
Unswayed, Johnson and Bouman voted against endorsing the project's form and character in order to carry on with the rezoning process. They also voted against a second recommendation for staff to draft a development permit for form and character, but specifying that council will consider it only if the rezoning passes.
After the votes, more than 20 speakers asked questions from two microphones set up on the sides of the room.
When asked what would happen if technical studies find the project is not compatible with the aquifer, Rowe said: "I guess it would be a process of coming back with a revision, and we'd go through this again."
Asked what would happen if the developer converted the hotel to condos, Rowe said the zoning bylaw "would be very specific that it would just permit this type of development. It can't be any old thing."
Asked what made council think the $40-million project would not hurt other businesses, Rowe said: "We do feel it will be complementary to other businesses."
Asked if there would be a referendum on the George, Rowe said: "There'll be a referendum in November," referring to the municipal elections.
Asked why council was not "coming at this with more of a backbone," Rowe said: "We're not even there yet. The negotiations are still to come."
Boel's report also included visualization images from six vantage points, created by an independent consultant.
The committee's recommendations will come back to council for ratification on April 1. Anticipating another large turnout, the Town has changed the venue to Gibsons Legion. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.
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