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Heli-ski resort for super rich voted down amid public outcry

Locals and First Nation opposed bid to rezone Old Remo property for non-farming use
Bruce Bidgood (far left) discusses the rezoning application with the regional district board prior to a vote on Friday, Feb. 17 at the RDKS office in Terrace. (Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Terrace Standard)

The Kitimat-Stikine regional district voted down a bid to rezone the Skeena River Ranch in Old Remo, just southwest of Terrace, that would have allowed a luxury heli-ski package for super rich tourists to continue.

The massive property is valued at almost $15-million and the house sits on ranching land that the American family who own it rent to Northern Escape Heli-Skiing for its high-end operations during the winter months.

But because the ranch house was first built as a personal residence it needed to be rezoned for non-farming use in order to continue. The house and surrounding property are also located within the Agricultural Land Reserve and required the land reserve’s commission approval as well.

READ MORE: Heli-ski resort for the super rich pushes back amid public scrutiny

The regional district at first called the bid to rezone “supportable” but opposition from area residents and the Kitsumkalum First Nation came to a head at a Feb. 1 public hearing and area directors changed their tune at a Feb. 17 vote.

About 68 area residents attended a Feb. 1 hearing and the regional district also received 74 written submissions, only one of which supported the rezoning.

Of concern to those opposed was the impacts from helicopters on neighbouring properties, local food security and farming, potential loss of farmland, and the use of farms for large residences and commercial purposes.

A representative from Kitsumkalum First Nation voiced its opposition to the rezoning, based on a concern of noise, impacts on wildlife, traditional land use of the area and Indigenous treaty rights.

Kitsumkalum Band manager Steve Roberts wrote that the rezoning would “only benefit wealthy tourists at the expense of our people,” adding that it could have “far-reaching and devastating consequences” amid ongoing treaty discussions.

Charles Claus, a local market gardener and orchardist who sounded the alarm in the first of many letters to the editor of The Terrace Standard, said he’s relieved at the board’s decision.

“I’m happy with the outcome but I’m also happy that the board members heard the concerns of the larger public.”

READ MORE: ‘High end heli-ski resort for the super rich’ threatens local farms

Bruce Bidgood, who is regional district director for Area C that includes Old Remo, said he’s “thrilled” at the response from the community.

“It was a resounding voice all throughout peoples’ concerns not to take away good farm land and turn it into commercial operations.”

For Bidgood, the situation shows a need for an the area to develop an official community plan (OCP).

An OCP lays out what kind of development should happen in different areas of a community, based on the community’s vision for the future.

“If we had [an OCP] in Area C, this wouldn’t happen. You couldn’t just say ‘I want to build a commercial lodge here’. It wouldn’t get to this point,” said Bidgood.

“But because we’re such small little communities we haven’t had one.”

John Forrest, president of Northern Escape Heli-Skiing, called the decision “very disappointing”, adding that he’s going to have to refund pre-booked clients after wrapping up this season.

Forrest won’t say exactly how much money the rejection will cost but the package starts at $79,999 for four days and costs a whopping $199,999 over 10 days for five people, with pre-bookings into next year.

“It’s going to be a blow to Terrace’s economy and to people’s employment in town at a time when resource based industries are dying and closing down,” said Forrest.

“Turning away a tourism opportunity that employs local people is pretty hard to understand.”

Forrest, who began offering the package before going through the approval process, argued other lodges in the area that have gone through the same process have been approved.

“I was optimistic. If you look at it purely from a zoning and bylaw perspective it should have been passed. When you bring into account the public opinion well that’s where that changes.”

Northern Escape’s helicopters flew along federally approved air traffic routes twice a day in the winter months.

“People like to believe that every helicopter they heard fly overhead was ours. The reality is that there’s 40 other helicopters in town and they fly overhead every day,” Forrest said.

“The helicopter usage that we had really was inconsequential compared to what goes on every day anyway.”

Claus said it was a mistake not to apply with the ALR before moving ahead.

“I think they put the cart before the horse. I would like to see due process happen on the front-end and I don’t think it helped the applicant either, because it made people aware of the potential negative impacts.”

Bidgood added that people who buy property in farming areas do so with an expectation that its agricultural nature will continue. He’s looking at a future conversation with regulators about helicopter flight paths.

“The [ranch owners] knew what they were buying,” said Bidgood.

“When you start to use something for a purpose for which it wasn’t originally intended you take your chances. So, you could end up with a $15 million residential house.

“If you’re willing to take that risk, well, go for it. But to me it seems like a pretty risky business.”

READ MORE: Farming disappears as exceptions made to land use rules

READ MORE: Public kept in the dark by regional district


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