The Wickaninnish Inn’s Crab Cookout event is under fire from residents concerned about businesses encroaching onto public beaches. (Submitted photo)

The Wickaninnish Inn’s Crab Cookout event is under fire from residents concerned about businesses encroaching onto public beaches. (Submitted photo)

Tofino council opposes Wickaninnish Inn’s beach use application

“Please do all you can to stop this proposal from going through”

Public clamouring over a local resort’s application to host events and dining experiences at two local beaches seems to have been heard loud and clear by Tofino’s local government.

The town’s municipal council unanimously agreed to write a letter of opposition to the Ministry of Forests last week regarding The Wickaninnish Inn’s application for a 30-year commercial licence of occupation to host events at Chesterman Beach and Shell Beach between May and October each year.

The Inn’s application states that both beach areas are “within a very, very short walk” and its guests “have been requesting a very unique outdoor dining experience.”

“We would like to be able to provide a world class dining experience directly within our unique setting,” it reads. “We have always had a strong environmental focus and have a low impact plan that will allow our guests to receive a luxurious experience in a rustic setting that will not negatively impact the sensitive environment we are in.”

The Inn’s application raised alarm bells throughout the community as residents expressed concern over losing public beach areas to private businesses and that fervour continued during council’s Jan. 24 regular meeting where five letters of opposition were reviewed.

“That is our beach…The ‘public’ beach. I should not be excluded from a portion of it because someone has a private business objective,” wrote Jack Gillie. “I hope that beach lasts, unsullied, and undiminished, forever.”

Both Kevin Midgley and Harold Sadler suggested the application could set a problematic precedent and prompt other resorts to stake claim to the sand.

“If this is allowed, what will stop every other hotel and vacation rental with public beach frontage from doing the same thing? So much for our ‘public beaches’! Please do all you can to stop this proposal from going through,” Sadler urged.

Steven Thicke and Robert Love both submitted letters through the ministry’s approval process and shared those letters with council.

“I’m writing to ask you to object to it and leave the shoreline open for the local people. It is beautiful and enjoyable. Please leave the shoreline open! Please!,” Love wrote.

READ MORE: Wick Inn’s Tofino beach buy up proposal sparks local concern about precedent

Council also heard objection from Surfrider Pacific Rim chair Amorita Adair who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period.

“Surfrider Pacific Rim would like to state that we strongly oppose any commercial endeavours that would affect access to the coastline. Approval of this application sets a dangerous precedent that multiple parts of the beach can be commercialized,” Adair said.

Mayor Dan Law suggested this is the first time council has experienced an application for a commercial tenure at a local beach and that the district does not currently have a policy to deal with such applications, which are ultimated decided by the provincial government.

He said he reviewed Tofino’s Vision to Action document, Official Community Plan and Tourism Master Plan for guidance and felt strongly directed towards protecting beaches for the public.

“There’s a very strong thread that runs through all of these plans and mission statements and visions and that is to conserve, protect, regenerate, preserve, restore, the natural environment,” he said. “In this particular case, we’re talking about beaches which are, in my mind, one of our premier public assets. We are called as council and all of our organizations to steward those beaches.”

Coun. Duncan McMaster agreed.

“I’ve been around the world and there’s nothing more upsetting than when you’re going down the beach and it’s suddenly a restricted area for a certain hotel,” he said. “I think the jewel in the crown for this area is the beaches and they are public. Public means access for everybody.”

Coun. Tom Stere noted that residents had clearly voiced opposition.

“There was obviously significant public input into this and the vast majority if not all the input was not in support of this type of activity on our public beaches,” he said.

Coun. Sarah Sloman suggested the resort’s application was dishonest about having no environmental impacts to consider.

“I feel their approach was misleading in their application,” she said.

Coun. Kat Thomas said she had worked for the Wickaninnish Inn in the past and had been involved with the Inn’s Crab Cookout events at Chesterman Beach.

“The attitude towards this is very much a sense of entitlement,” she said. “I have been in the position of asking locals as well as guests of the hotel to move from the seats and tables if they are not paying guests of the event. It has not been a public asset because members of the public have not been able to join.”

Wickaninnish Inn Managing Director and President Charles McDiarmid told the Westerly News that the Inn has been hosting a Crab Cookout at Chesterman for about 20 years and Shell Beach has been used for events like weddings since around 1996.

“The negative reaction did catch me by surprise I will say because it’s something we’ve been doing for years and years,” he said. “There’s never been any complaints about noise or not respecting the beach…There haven’t been a lot of negative comments and it offers a unique experience to people not just coming to our area, but locals too.”

He acknowledged that concerns about the Crab Cookout were raised to Tofino’s council by resident Jack Gillie in the fall of 2021 over the cookout’s perceived exclusiveness to guests of the Inn, but suggested that perception arose by a staff member who had spoken in error at the time.

“There was maybe one or two incidents of someone being misinformed…This is a non-exclusive basis. I think that’s important and I think there is some general misunderstanding that people are going to be kicked out or not allowed in the space. That absolutely is not the case and I think that’s probably one of the most misunderstood parts of this whole application process,” he said.

“The approval we’re seeking is only to allow us to provide food and beverage services on the beach. It’s not at the exclusion of anyone. Someone could come and sit in the Crab Cookout if they wanted to.”

READ MORE: Tofino council questions businesses encroaching on public beaches

He also disagreed with concerns around a precedent being set due to the ministry’s application process.

“My contention, and I think this is the proper perspective, is each application should be judged on its own merits. One size does not fit all. Anyone who wants to do what we are applying to do would have to go through the same process we’re going through,” he said.

McDiarmid attended Jan. 24’s council meeting and said he was “shocked” by Coun. Thomas’ recollection of her time with the Inn.

“Her characterization of our attitude was very disappointing because that’s never been our approach. It’s never been disrespectful to the community. It was hearsay, it was highly opinionated, it was disingenuous and highly charged allegations with just one person’s perspective and I refute what she said,” he said. “It was shocking and disappointing and I frankly don’t agree with her characterization. If you did a poll of the team who is here at the Inn I don’t think that would be anyone’s general consensus about the way we conduct ourselves.”

He added he was also surprised that none of the Inn’s community contributions were raised at the council table, including an annual Tofino Saltwater Classic fundraiser held at Shell Beach, and that no one asked if the Inn’s events had been the subject of past complaints.

“Those are all factors that were never brought up or considered. It seemed like a bit of a rush to judgement. Nothing was considered or mentioned about how many complaints have we got over how long this has been happening. None of those questions surfaced or were asked,” he said. “There was no discussion or mention about the fundraising benefits that occur on the beach as well.”

READ MORE: Brendan Morrison’s Tofino Saltwater Classic raises over $75K in successful return

He said the Inn is still hopeful its application will be approved, despite council’s opposition.

“It’s a factor, but it’s not the only factor. I think that there’s a significant number of people out there that are actually not vehemently opposed and, in fact, are supportive that maybe haven’t responded in writing yet. There’s still a significant amount of time for those who might feel differently to respond,” he said, adding council had not reached out to the Inn prior to their decision to oppose the application and he does not plan to reach out to council in the wake of that decision.

“I’m not out to change anyone’s opinion if they’re not really curious to find out more in the first place. If somebody wanted to understand if there was another side to the story, or know a little bit more background, of course I’d be happy to discuss it with anyone, but I think the vote was pretty clear.”

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