The Clayoquot Biosphere Trust is hoping to build a new community space for educational programming and events in Tofino, but has faced consistent opposition from the neighborhood they want to put it in and the project will need to pass through a public hearing next week before shovels can hit the ground.
The CBT has long been eyeing the creation of a biosphere centre in the region and purchased a 881 square-metre property at 301 Olsen Road in 2019 that they hope will be the future site of that centre. The lot is currently undeveloped and is zoned for a duplex or single-family dwelling, so the CBT submitted an application in July, 2020, to rezone the site to allow for a three-storey institutional facility to be built.
Tofino’s municipal council has approved two readings of the rezoning bylaw for the property and a public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14 at 5 p.m. for council to hear the community’s thoughts before making a final decision on whether to allow the project to go ahead early in the New Year, according to the district’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers.
“We have a legislative requirement for a public hearing, which is an opportunity for the community to speak to the development and express either their support or opposition and the reasons why,” Rodgers told the Westerly News. “Council hears that information and uses that as part of their decision making tools through this zoning process.”
The CBT’s proposed biosphere centre would include office and meeting space, a teaching kitchen, service and support space as well as two single-bedroom housing units. An indoor gathering space would have capacity for 40 people and two connected outdoor areas would facilitate community events. The project also includes on-site parking for nine vehicles.
During a presentation to council in September, CBT executive director Rebecca Hurwitz explained that the Clayoquot Biosphere is one of 19 UNESCO biospheres in Canada and 727 worldwide.
“We have an important story to tell and it’s vital that residents and visitors understand the global significance of our region as well as our history so that together we can shape a positive and inclusive future,” Hurwitz said. “The CBT established the vision to create a permanent home in 2008, with the goal to have a transformative impact in our communities and ecosystems through knowledge exchange, education and research. The centre will serve more than the CBT, it will be a place to unite people to achieve our shared vision and values and a nexus of education, science, conservation and cultural initiatives on the West Coast.”
She added other UNESCO biosphere centres have had positive impacts, citing successful facilities in Sweden and Ireland.
“These iconic buildings create a connection between people and place and the goals of these projects speak to the role of UNESCO biospheres worldwide, including research, community development, education, inspiring change and conservation through culture,” she said. “The biosphere centre is an opportunity to shine a light on our region as an international leader in environmental conservation, sustainable development, education, science and reconciliation.”
Area residents have been clamouring against the project since it was first proposed in 2020, with seven neighbouring households submitting a petition against the project.
“We the undersigned residents of the Crab Dock neighbourhood do not approve of this type of proposed development and land use in this location,” the petition, dated May 19, 2020, reads.
Longtime Tofino resident Camilla Thorogood signed the petition and posted to social media on Monday asking locals to support the neighbourhood’s opposition at the hearing, likening the proposed biosphere centre to the 1,200 square-metre RCMP detachment built in 2019.
“Every single one of us supports the Clayoquot Biosphere, we think it’s a good thing, but the building is taking up the whole footprint and we think that’s not suitable on that corner,” Thorogood told the Westerly News. “Naturally they get lots of support, we support them, but people aren’t thinking about having your residential house with a three storey building butt up against it almost…It’s a large footprint on that corner. I hate it when people say NIMBY (not in my backyard) because that’s exactly how you’d feel if this building was in your backyard.”
Thorogood said she and her husband Ray built their “dream retirement home” in the area roughly 30 years ago and there are about 10 households currently occupied year-round in the neighbourhood with two “old, small hotels” that were there when their homes were built.
She said the site at the corner of Olsen and Campbell is not appropriate for the biosphere centre as traffic is currently tough enough to navigate at the intersection.
“It’s ‘by guess or by golly’ whether you get out because of traffic,” she said. “It’s really difficult even to pull out right, let alone left.”
She added that the nine parking spots being proposed is woefully insufficient considering the 40-person meeting space as well as CBT staff and other potential visitors to the centre.
Jaime Eggers lives two houses down from the proposed development and told the Westerly News on Monday that the biosphere centre would loom over the neighborhood.
“Our biggest issue with it is the size. It’s going to be huge. It’s going to be close to the size of the RCMP development that went in and stirred up quite a lot of people in town and we feel like it’s going to change the neighbourhood,” she said.
She added she fears the rezoning could lead to further larger developments in the area, noting the neighbourhood is one of the oldest in Tofino.
“It’s a nice, old neighbourhood with lots of trees,” she said. “Small families live here and the buildings that are here are suited to this area, they’re small with lots of garden space…They’re going to fill their entire lot with a building.”
Eggers and her husband Ben signed the petition against the project in 2020 and submitted a letter to council outlining their concerns, but Eggers said she’s been disappointed to see the proposed biosphere centre continue to advance through the zoning steps despite the neighbourhood’s consistent opposition.
“They have made some changes, but those changes haven’t been huge and while everybody has been opposed to it, it just keeps going through to the next step. I think it’s a bit disheartening for everybody that lives on this street,” she said. “I think it’s going to be pushed through to be honest, but I wouldn’t mind if they went back to the drawing board and either found somewhere else to put the building or made it less gigantic.”
Residents can attend the Dec. 14 public hearing online and information on how to participate is available at www.tofino.ca. Anyone wanting to submit written comments prior to the hearing can do so through email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thorogood said she’s hoping an in-person option can be added as some who may want to participate struggle to access online meetings.
“Older people who want to have a say are not computer literate and can’t always access Zoom,” she said. “It’s difficult for older people to participate.”