After exhausting all legal avenues, Canmore town councillors were compelled this week to approve the Three Sisters Mountain Village and Smith Creek development projects.
They decided to turn the page on a tumultuous chapter after the town lost an appeal in Alberta's highest court earlier this month.
A special meeting of council held Tuesday was marked with emotional speeches and outbursts of applause from the spectators who filled the chambers.
Mayor Sean Krausert opened the meeting with an observation: it was never a matter of if the lands in question would be developed, but when.
"I should note a few people have suggested that we vote no or resign," said Krausert. "What would be accomplished by such? Nothing. The Area Structure Plans would still get implemented, but only after Municipal Affairs comes in to handle things, which will serve no one."
Councillors Joanna McCallum, Karen Marra and Jeff Hilstad declared a pecuniary interest, recusing themselves from the meeting because they are specifically named in an ongoing lawsuit in the Court of King's Bench.
This left Mayor Krausert along with councillors Wade Graham, Tanya Foubert and Jeff Mah to vote on the contentious Area Redevelopment Plans.
According to an administrative report, which was echoed by town solicitor Adam Driedzic at the outset of the meeting, councillors had a fiduciary duty to approve the plans, not an "unfettered choice" to vote as they please.
"There will be consequences to both a councillor and the town if a councillor who participates in the meeting votes against approving the Area Structure Plans," read the report.
The Three Sisters housing development is shown under the mountain peaks from which it takes its name. (Colette Derworiz/The Canadian Press)
The town's councillors rejected both projects in 2021. The following year, a Land and Property Rights Tribunal of Alberta ruled both should go ahead. The town then brought the matter in front of the Court of Appeal of Alberta, which dismissed the case on Oct 3.
"This is a dark chapter for Canmore, but I believe this is a long story with much still to be written," said Coun. Mah. "This community is resilient. We are survivors."
Concerns about wildlife movement and the town's need for affordable housing dominated this debate through the years.
The developments, proposed by Three Sisters Mountain Village Property Ltd., are on the eastern edge of Canmore. They include about 80 per cent of developable land left in the mountain town, covering 300 hectares of land, including residential, recreational and commercial uses.
More still to sort out in the courts
Now dismissed by the provincial court, the tribunal's findings stand: the proposal satisfied parameters set out in a 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board decision approving a recreational and tourism project on the land.
The tribunal 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.
In this fight, Canmore has racked up $579,345 in legal bills so far, with more potential costs around the corner to address related lawsuits.
An emotional meeting
Fight is a fitting term for Coun. Graham, who told a story about his first fight in junior high, defending a classmate from a bully. Back then, he said, he made his point but walked away with a black eye.
"I guess that fight set the tone for the better part of my life," Graham said. "Fight the good fight, but never think you'll come out unscathed."
In a tearful speech to Canmore residents, Graham said he knows citizens are disillusioned with democracy, disheartened and angry by the decision.
"I am too, and you have every right to be," Graham said. "I can't help but feel I let you down. I'm sorry."
He called on NDP MLA Sarah Elmeligi to take the town's concerns to Edmonton, pleading with the province and premier to find a resolution to address citizens' concerns about this development and their community's environmental and social-ecological future.
If his vote against the plans wouldn't add more financial burdens to the town, that would be his choice.
"What I want to do versus what I have to do," Graham said. "Voting in opposition isn't a reasonable option for me today."
Shifting focus and turning the page
Coun. Foubert thanked her colleagues for the heartfelt words. She told the floor that the municipality did its best to listen to the needs of the community and exhausted all reasonable options.
"Now the only way forward is to turn the page and to accept the decision that has been made by the court," Foubert said.
Foubert said her next step will be shifting focus on managing human use and tackling what the town can do to address wildlife connectivity and coexistence in the Bow Valley.
Ahead of the vote, some in the audience left the room, missing the moment all motions on the agenda passed with unanimous consent.
"I'm sorry that some had to leave. I know it's very hard for some," Krausert said just ahead of adjourning the meeting. "I remain hopeful. It's time to look forward, and I ask that please, as we do so, please focus on the issues, not the people, and please remain civil."