About 40 people packed into the MD of Pincher Creek council chambers Aug. 22 for the public hearing on a proposed rezoning of a quarter-section of land from agriculture to rural recreation. The rezoning would facilitate a dome campground.
The applicant, Michael Olsen, owns Blakiston and Company in Waterton Lakes National Park. The proposed area sits west of Highway 6, southeast of the Pieridae-Waterton plant and accessed by Township Road 43A.
Murray and Suzanne Kirby, the owners of the quarter-section, have agreed to lease the land for the domed campground.
Proposed development is split into two phases: first, one main common-area globe with six clear igloo globes for guests, along with portable bathrooms, showers, solar-powered laundry and a sink cistern at a high point on the property. The second phase would add nine more globes with additional areas for food, showers, washrooms and laundry.
Occupancy for each globe varies between two to four, depending on the globe’s size. None of the structures on-site would be permanent other than the buried water cistern, and each would be powered by batteries and solar power.
The campground would operate mainly during the summer months, though special group bookings could occur during winter.
Letters supporting the project were received prior to the meeting, including one from Shell Canada Limited. Most of the letters, however, were not in favour, citing concerns with increased tourists, land disturbance, and the suitability of the area for a campground.
Gavin Scott, a senior planner with the Oldman River Regional Services Commission, said developments like a campground should be close to major roadways for easy access. The remoteness of the quarter-section, he added, was a point of concern, as well as the request to rezone the entire section.
“Zoning is a powerful tool. It is the only step in the process whereby council has the ability to accept or deny the entire proposal,” Scott said.
“It is my recommendation to cut that back to Phase 1. The applicant would have to come back if they were to give a second phase — six [domes] may be palatable to some, but the 15 may not be.”
The proximity to the gas plant was also a point of concern, with residents wondering how communication with campers would work in the event of an emergency. Others questioned the economic viability of camping next to such a large industrial site.
“I used to live literally right across the street from where you want to build this, and I would wake up 5 o’clock in the morning to a train entering the gas plant,” said Ethan Hardy. “It’s not peaceful.”
With instances of non-rural visitors getting lost on ranchers’ land and even trespassing and teasing bulls, Heidi Matheson said the campground would create questions of safety and liability.
“City people don’t understand farm life. We have gates that keep our cattle in. City people don’t understand you don’t open that gate and leave it open. We’ve got machinery, we’ve got ponds on our land,” she said.
“Our one lake, the fence goes under the pond, so you don’t see the fence. What if somebody decides that ‘Hey look, there’s a pond right there across the road to the campground, let’s go for a swim in there’ and they get caught up in our barbwire? Who’s responsible for that?”
Many of the residents present also expressed the land should remain agricultural to preserve the ranching nature of the community. Attracting visitors from the city unfamiliar with rural life, said Tracy Delay, would endanger livestock and people and increase the likelihood of land investors buying land away from ranching operations.
“Do you know what those high-value, high-net-worth people look at when they come? The value of our land,” she said. “And it’s going to drive up the land prices, which is already almost unaffordable for many of us to grow our operations.”
“Kirbys are doing this to generate additional income to assist with the farm. I do not disagree with that,” Delay continued. “We diversified in order to keep ranching. Almost every farmer in this MD or ranch has done the same, without the impact to the neighbour.”
The lack of activities for tourists in the immediate area, she added, would mean the added number of visitors would not economically benefit the local community.
The biggest issue, said Darryl Carlson, is the campground would compromise the area’s seclusion that is valued by those who live there.
“If you designate this as recreation, it’s going to open the floodgates to pollution — people pollution,” he said. “I understand that sometimes you do things to make a dollar, but I think we gotta remember that sometimes the short-term gain is not worth the long-term pain.”
Olsen attended the hearing to answer questions and address concerns. Having spent time at his grandfather’s farm outside Lethbridge growing up, Olsen said he understood the importance of protecting the neighbours’ privacy.
“I really don’t think the clientele that we’re trying to bring here are going to be very disruptive to the neighbouring areas,” he said. “We’re marketing to people that want to have the ability to detach from the regular day-to-day.”
Contrary to what others expressed during the hearing, Olsen said the proximity to the gas plant was a non-issue as he had spent time on-site and found the area peaceful.
“That’s kind of what we’re trying to provide for others that don’t have that type of getaway, is a really quiet, serene place,” he said.
Rezoning the quarter-section, Olsen added, wouldn’t take away from agriculture in the area.
“What we’re really trying to do is make this very off the grid, very low impact,” Olsen said. “We’re not taking away from that agriculture — they’re still grazing their cattle on that land in the fall and in the spring, and we’re trying to intermingle and create kind of a different getaway for people.”
Though not a landowner, Pauline Zukiwski said the concerns of more visitors in the area were exaggerated.
“I just have to put a word in for urbanites and people like myself who would love to come to a campground like this — I’m just amazed that you’d be afraid to have me come and drive on your roads or camp across from your land,” she said.
“There has to come a time when people who live in an urban centre have an opportunity to enjoy these jewels you are talking about,” Zukiwski added. “Most people are like me. We’re not coming to destroy or take away what you have or destroy your memories.”
Ultimately, the issue came down to a matter of trust, said Murray Kirby.
“I’ve said if it doesn’t work out for Michael — we give him a one-year contract and if that goes well we’ll go further — but if it doesn't work out, it’s over, and I already asked Roland [Milligan, MD chief administrative officer] the process of zoning the land back because we’re not going to pay higher taxes for no reason, and Suzanne and I are not interested in running a campground,” Kirby said.
“That’s just it,” he continued. “That gets back to a trust issue you’d all have to have with me and Suze. We say we’re going to do something how we’re going to do something and that’s all there is to it.”
Council will vote on rezoning the property for the proposal’s second reading during the next regular council meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 6 p.m. in council chambers. Though only council will be discussing the matter during the meeting, residents are encouraged to reach out to their elected officials beforehand to express their views.
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze