A provincial tribunal has ordered the town of Canmore to allow two major developments from Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Ltd. (TSMV) to proceed after council rejected them last year.
The decision by the Land and Property Rights Tribunal (LPRT) of Alberta was handed down Monday.
Director of Strategy and Development for TSMV Chris Ollenberger said the tribunal's decision was carefully thought through.
"We believe that the area structure plans represent what is good for Canmore and good for Three Sisters, and so we are very pleased with the decision."
Combined, the developments would cover more than 300 hectares of land and range from residential, recreational and commercial uses.
The town originally blocked the Three Sisters and Smith Creek proposals because of their potential impact on population growth — Canmore's population is expected to double in the coming decades — and on the Bow Valley.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) called the ruling deeply concerning.
The organization presented to the tribunal, arguing the decision would cause harm to the land, local wildlife and their habitats.
"As a collaborative group who has worked on issues related to sensible development in Alberta for more than 25 years with a variety of governments, partners and communities, we are disappointed and disturbed to learn about this short-sighted decision," Y2Y's statement said.
The town of Canmore also responded to the news through a statement, saying it is taking time to review the decision.
Basis for appeal
After the town of Canmore rejected both projects in April and May of last year, the TSMV decided it would take action, alleging the town was causing "unauthorized and unnecessary impediments," according to the tribunal decision.
The Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) approved the development of a large-scale recreational and tourism project in the area in 1992, subject "only to limited and narrow terms and conditions upon which Canmore, as the affected municipality, may have input."
Over the years, TSMV has tried to obtain planning approvals for the land, spending millions of dollars to create new area structure plans, as required by the town.
The appeal argued that if the plans satisfied the conditions set out in the original NRCB approval, as well as the town's own policies and bylaws, the projects should be able to move forward.
In the end, the tribunal found both developments did meet those requirements.
"I'm sure there will be some in the community that are disappointed in today's decision, that's recognizable," Ollenberger said.
"But … the discussion about whether or not development would occur has already happened. What the discussion needs to be focused on and what it is focused on with the LPRT decisions is how do we do the development?"
The tribunal looked at several issues brought forward by both parties over four weeks in March, including concerns over population growth, affordable housing and wildlife protection.
In its decisions — both more 50-pages long — the tribunal found both proposed developments satisfied the parameters set out in the 1992 NRCB approval.
It said the projects would create lower-cost forms of housing, add community infrastructure and provide wildlife movement corridors, acknowledging a recent Alberta Environment and Parks report looking at data on wildlife movements.
"It is obvious that no development at all would best protect existing wildlife habitat and movement; however, the NRCB approval clearly did allow development in the Bow Valley," the tribunal decision for the Smith Creek plan reads.
Y2Y said the development plans don't address the environmental concerns of today.
"Keeping connectivity through the Bow Valley is a pressing concern and this decision does not support the science or community," it said in its statement.
"Connectivity provides the best chance for some of our most cherished and threatened wildlife to thrive."
Karsten Heuer is a wildlife biologist with Bow Valley Engage, an advocacy group, who's worked in the Bow Valley for the last 25 years.
He said recent evidence shows wildlife in the area needs more protection.
"We have research from some of the best wildlife researchers in the continent telling us very explicitly that we have eroded the connectivity between Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country to the extent that over 80 per cent of it is gone," Heuer said.
Heuer added Canmore council received "unprecedented" community input before making its decision on the proposed developments, and he expects the town's current council to appeal this latest ruling.
For the developer's part, Ollenberger said they'll be looking to meet with Canmore officials to discuss next steps.
"It would still be at least a couple of years before you saw physical equipment moving out in that site," he said.
A $161-million civil lawsuit filed by TSMV last year suing the Town of Canmore and all members of its previous town council is still ongoing.