Albertans Fight Big RV Park Development

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August 23, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Near the northern tip of Sylvan Lake in central Alberta, away from the crowds of the town, the only development to be seen is a smattering of acreages and the tiny summer village of Sunbreaker Cove. Small groups of cattle graze on the green hills.

The landscape near the shores of Alberta's most popular lake may look pastoral now, but there are plans to build a 515-unit RV resort called Skyy Country, billed as affordable and featuring a nine-hole golf course, public outdoor water park and playgrounds, The Calgary Herald reported.

Residents of the long-standing summer village a half-mile away are infuriated with the plan, saying the resort will lead to overcrowding of nearby roads and the boat launch. The village is now appealing Lacombe County's approval of Skyy Country.

But Lance Dzaman, a spokesman for the resort, believes there's plenty of room around the lake for a well-managed RV resort, which sits adjacent to another site for a proposed development of 59 single-family homes and a private marina development.

"It opens up a little more recreation to a lot more Albertans," Dzaman said of Skyy Country.

"This is a 10- to 15-year plan here," said Dzaman. "It won't happen overnight."

But on the horizon, there are many more development conflicts brewing as Lacombe County works to approve an area structure plan that would allow for 21,500 people to move in around the northwestern end of Sylvan Lake over the next several decades.

Current Sylvan Lake landowners, many of whom hail from Calgary but spend their summers in the area, fear for both their property values and the lake's environmental health. New developments, they say, will simply overwhelm Sylvan Lake with boat and road traffic, and risk its stable levels and water quality.

Just two months before provincewide municipal elections, the tempestuous debate ratcheted up this week as Lacombe County gave notice it would not participate in development planning talks with the Town of Sylvan Lake and other municipalities.

"A generation from now, what would you rather have — 30,000 extra people in the watershed or a clean lake?" said Graeme Strathdee of the Sylvan Lake Watershed Stewardship Society.

"It's an important asset, and it's important that it be protected."

Sylvan Lake is relatively clean and user-friendly and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Just 15 minutes from Red Deer, real estate prices have been driven up by an influx of wealth from Alberta's two largest cities, but especially Calgary.

It's now home to Canada's most expensive waterfront property prices. A Re/Max Recreational Property report earlier this year found even in the post-boom era, the average price for a three-bedroom winterized home on Sylvan Lake is a staggering $1.2 million.

The lands surrounding Sylvan Lake are governed by a mishmash of municipalities but Lacombe County has jurisdiction over 70%. The county's lands, to the north and west of the town, also includes the least-developed parts of the lake, with ecologically key fish and bird habitats, shorelines and forests.

Philip Dack, a Calgary-based senior planner for the consulting firm AECOM, hired by the county to develop an area structure plan, said in the past decade just a handful of new developments has been approved by the county for the area.

He said science and technology is progressing to the point that upward of 8,500 new homes, including multi-family units, can be built without harming the water quality. As an extra precaution, the county will only allow development to occur in phases. After each phase is built, the county will require a minimum of two years for monitoring to see if the lake suffers any ill effects.

"It's much better to have a plan in place," Dack said.

County officials said they have been working on its area structure plan for too long — and had spent too much money — to go back to discussions with other municipalities at this stage. "It's really not reasonable," Dack said.

Across the lake, the mayor of the town said while she doesn't want to completely halt development around Sylvan Lake, she's concerned about municipalities striking out on their own. Susan Samson also said the two years of monitoring Lacombe County is proposing is not enough time to catch unintended environmental consequences. "The risk is too great," Samson said.

The town itself has a growth strategy that will see the population go to 60,000 over the next five decades, from its current 11,000. However, Samson argues Sylvan Lake already has services such as waste water processing and commercial districts. Growth can proceed responsibly.

Lacombe County's new plans for development, others note, will proceed before the province's land-use framework legislation begins ordering regional development plans, a process at least three years away for the Red Deer region. "They're doing this in such a rushed manner because the rules are changing," said Calgarian Kent Williamson, whose family has owned land on the lake since 1961

Williamson said water in the lake is close to drinking quality and Sylvan Lake is a "gem" of Alberta that needs to be protected. "This isn't a NIMBY thing, although the developers want to make it sound like that."

Alberta has been without regional rules for planning since 1995, when the government of then-premier Ralph Klein dismantled regional planning commissions. The move, partly a cost-cutting measure, was also designed to address concerns that cities were hindering development in rural municipalities.

Critics have said the provincial government's hands-off policy has meant the environment and infrastructure has suffered.

In central Alberta, many others say they are concerned about what they see as almost unfettered development around the lake. An editorial this week in the Red Deer Advocate weighed in on development plans for both Sylvan Lake and nearby Gull Lake, calling it a "a land rush" and saying both developers and Lacombe County council "are acting in unseemly haste" to get approvals through.

The plight of Alberta's most popular lake has also attracted the attention of Alberta's most prominent water scientist, David Schindler.

"All of our lakes in the central part of the province are threatened by development," the University of Alberta biological sciences professor said in an e-mail exchange.

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