Yellowknife

In Yellowknife, query about ‘quarry’ creates quandary


A Yellowknife property owner may have to pretend he’s operating a quarry to be allowed to flatten what he describes as “largely unusable” land.

Kenny Ruptash’s company, Nahanni Construction, owns a parcel of land next to Great Slave Lake just north of the Yellowknife Ski Club. Ruptash wants to grade a chunk of that rocky, uneven land so that it slopes gently.

That’s not a small job. It would involve removing around 300,000 cubic metres of rock.

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The problem is that the property lies in what Yellowknife’s new community plan calls a special management zone. These zones are areas of the city “not currently designated for a specific use today or in the near future.”

Under the community plan, virtually no kind of development is allowed in a special management zone – except quarrying.

“Aggregate resources on lands within this zone … may provide for community aggregate need through new quarrying activities in the future,” a briefing note for city councillors states.

“Where the need is determined, extraction is permitted by the policy.”

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And so with the only easy option being to call the work quarrying, Ruptash appeared before city council on Monday to ask if he can open a “quarry” on the land.

Ruptash made clear to councillors that he and his business have “no intention of operating as a traditional quarry.” He just wants to grade the land. What happens to the rock after that is of secondary importance.

Following about 90 minutes of debate on Monday, councillors decided to set a special council meeting for July 18 to continue discussion and come up with an answer.

‘Usable for what?’

The application raises some awkward questions for the City of Yellowknife and its municipal politicians.

Is it OK to call something a quarry, when it isn’t a quarry, to get around a stipulation of Yellowknife’s community plan?

Does the “fake quarry” approach set an uneasy precedent for other developers to try similar tactics in future?

And does this quandary suggest the community plan is faulty, to the detriment of people like Ruptash trying to work on their private property? Or is this a demonstration that the community plan is working and protecting an area of important land by making any development a struggle?

The land in question is on the Back Bay waterfront. Over the course of more than a year’s back-and-forth with city planners, Ruptash has already agreed to maintain a buffer zone beside the lake so the grading doesn’t ruin the scenery for residents.

A historic cabin, said by the city to have been built in the late 1930s, sits on the site and will be protected during any development work, according to briefing documents.

Key to Monday’s discussion were two issues: what Ruptash ultimately plans to do with the land, and to what extent the city should be involved in ensuring the “quarry” has the right regulatory approvals.

After Councillor Julian Morse spent five minutes querying Ruptash about his eventual goal for the land, council was no clearer as to what the developer had in mind. (Ruptash suggested he may one day want to build a family home there, though he acknowledged that would trigger an even bigger zoning headache.)

But Councillor Niels Konge said sometimes business owners don’t need to have a finalized vision to act.

“Kenny’s a businessman. He sees an opportunity there,” said Konge, a construction business owner. “Does he see what the opportunity is right now? No. But there is one, so you take advantage of it.”

That didn’t satisfy Councillor Shauna Morgan.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to just pretend this is resource extraction,” Morgan said. “The language that’s being used today, it’s almost like there’s something wrong with the land and we have to fix it so it can be ‘usable.’ But the big question here, that nobody can answer, is: usable for what?

“Of course it’s usable for some things. Unusable for what? What are we planning to do on this lot and is it in the public interest?

“I’ve heard the lament that if only we could all think with a business lens, if we could just partner with developers, we would all be better off. That’s not our role. We’re not partners with developers. We’re here to represent the interests of the entire public. It’s not our role to be in business with Kenny.”

‘We didn’t plan well enough’

Becoming a “quarry” – councillors several times made air quotes with their fingers while saying the word – is not the only solution available.

However, it’s the easiest and quickest.

The main alternative would be drawing up an area development plan, which is a means of seeking approval to dodge the restrictions that exist in a special zone. But an area development plan requires sign-off from the territorial minister and public hearings, among other stipulations.

According to city planning director Charlsey White, who expressed support for the quarry solution, more than 20 properties are in zones where development is similarly restricted.

Konge said he believes the city should now come up with a fix for such properties that have, in his view of the community plan, “unfortunately been put somewhere I don’t believe they belong.”

“We didn’t plan well enough and I want to fix that,” he said.

But Morgan countered that this was not an instance of “red tape,” but the community plan allowing council to assess the impact of a proposal on residents and public use of surrounding land and water.

If Ruptash’s plan ends up becoming a residential development, Morgan said, “this could be the tip of an iceberg” that involves the city having to provide services to a new location, at considerable cost.

Still, Morgan said, if Ruptash’s grading work is to be treated as a quarry, she supported the briefing note’s suggestion that a lengthy list of conditions be attached. Those include that Ruptash’s company apply for a water licence, land use permit, and a range of other regulatory permissions.

That list of conditions met with some opposition. Ruptash, for example, insists the work would not require a water licence so there would be no need to spend time and money preparing an application, a position backed up by Morse, who has a background as a regulatory specialist.

Mayor Rebecca Alty said most of the conditions were redundant as city bylaws already demand that any development meet federal and territorial regulatory requirements.

Hauling the conversation back to the narrower question of whether Ruptash’s plan should be approved based on city bylaws, Alty said she believed surrounding properties would not be impacted and suggested she was in favour of approval.

A special meeting at 7pm on Monday, July 18 will consider the proposal again before councillors issue a verdict.

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