Ucluelet’s Shifting Tides

Canada’s West Coast can be a remote and forbidding place, even for those of us who live in the neighbourhood. Yet this hasn't stopped the shifting tides in the development of Ucluelet, traditionally a small fishing town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.


Canada’s West Coast can be a remote and forbidding place, even for those of us who live in the neighbourhood. Yet this hasn’t stopped the shifting tides in the development of Ucluelet, traditionally a small fishing town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Related Story: How Ucluelet is Remaking Itself – Slideshow

If you stand on the Uplands at Ittatsoo Bay and hang your head, you see pretty much what you might have expected: a war zone. This is not the actual site of the famous 1990s War in the Woods. That occurred in Clayoquot Sound, 40-odd kilometres to the northwest. But the scene is evocative: the rocks beneath your feet are shattered and broken, forming a rough roadbed much below the standards of even the most accommodating logging-truck driver. The trees are devastated in every direction, a sad reminder of the last short-on-cash landowner who decided to cut everything of value and run. It’s an environmentalist’s nightmare. But if you lift your gaze – if you look up to the mountains behind you or the ocean before you – it will take your breath away. To the east lie Barkley Sound and the islands of the Broken Group. To the south and west, the roiling Pacific reaches out to a faded horizon. On a typical spring day, you can stand on this spot and enjoy five kinds of weather in 10 minutes: rain, wind, a little hail, an unexpected calm and, between the clouds, a sparkling outburst of sunshine that throws rainbows into the distance. Stand here on a late September evening and you’ll see a sunset that stretches from Anchorage to San Francisco. Stand here with Ken Westlake and you will not be allowed to hang your head. Westlake is a Vancouver lawyer who, with business partner David Martin, has owned a treasured piece of what locals lovingly call the Wet Coast since 1991. For years the two friends contented themselves with dragging their families out to the waterfront south of Ucluelet Inlet, holidaying in a rundown shack without heat or power. But a couple of years ago, Westlake and Martin got the opportunity to buy an adjoining piece of property, giving them a 133-hectare parcel that, for the time being, is the only potential large-lot development available anywhere on the Tofino-Ucluelet peninsula. Before you know it, the roads will be upgraded, the building sites will be cleared and the salal will have greened up all obvious evidence of tawdry forest practices. What was only recently a resource-industry battleground will soon be a residential holiday haven – a little piece of paradise for anyone who can afford it. Welcome to the new Ucluelet. Canada’s West Coast can be a remote and forbidding place, even for those of us who live in the neighbourhood. With few exceptions, it’s all cliffs, crags and bad weather. For the young and hardy, option number one for accessing the coast first-hand is the West Coast Trail, the 75-kilometre hike from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, just south of Barkley Sound. For everyone else, the only reasonable choice is Long Beach – the central feature in the federal Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada stretching most of the 40 kilometres from Ucluelet to Tofino. Even this can seem relatively remote. It’s a three-hour drive across Vancouver Island from Nanaimo, and there are a couple of turns by Kennedy Lake that, on a dark and stormy night (which is to say, on any night between October 1 and May 31), can be daunting to even the most grizzled veteran of B.C.’s mountain highways. Still, that doesn’t stop more than 750,000 people a year from making the trip. As appears to be the fate of every place by the same name, Long Beach has been discovered. It wasn’t always so. In the mid-’70s you could drive out onto the beach itself, pitch a tent wherever you liked and be lonely for the rest of the evening. Even into the late 1980s there were only a handful of reliable lodging places, and, as long as you avoided the July-August high season, you were still guaranteed a solitary walk – for miles – on the beach. In those simpler times, Ucluelet and Tofino had thriving economies that relied almost entirely on resource industries. The harbours were choked with fish boats, and the forests were noisy with the sound of falling trees. That crashing came to a halt in Tofino first. A nasty dispute over logging rights on Meares Island dampened the forest industry’s fervour in the late ’80s, and a growing population of environmentalists started to put down roots in and around that community. By the time the Clayoquot Sound dispute – the War in the Woods – broke out in the early ’90s, the major forest companies had got out of town; Tofino was already thinking of itself as a burgeoning tourist mecca. In Ucluelet, meanwhile, a large number of the 1,500 residents were still dreaming of a future that included fishing and forestry. While Tofino made early attempts to tart up its streets and its reputation, Ucluelet remained a plain, unassuming little town, hunkered down on a nicely protected ocean inlet (Ucluelet is the Nuu-chah-nulth word for “safe harbour”). Given that its residents tended to see quite enough of the ocean and the forests during the day, the town faced inward, standing well back from the always threatening Pacific. If times were changing, Ucluelet residents were more inclined to fight than switch. Bill Irving, for example, who was mayor from 1991 to 2000 and who still sits on the District of Ucluelet Council today, convinced the provincial and federal governments to help fund a major sewer and water upgrade to accommodate a new fish plant in the late ’90s. And after the disastrous collapse of the Fraser River salmon fishery in 1999, Ucluelet fisher and community activist Dan Edwards went on a 59-day hunger strike in an effort to get emergency relief for his fellow fishers. For his pains, the feds offered a “dispute-resolution process” he says doesn’t resolve disputes and then withdrew $2 million in community economic development funding that Edwards had been managing for the previous two years. All this is not to suggest that there was no tourism in Ucluelet. Victoria entrepreneur Bob Wright’s Canadian Princess had been docked permanently for decades, serving as a floating hotel, restaurant and staging area for daily salmon-fishing charters. But due to a battle between the sport and commercial fishing communities over access to salmon, Wright was more resented than admired. The tide turned without notice in 1997. A developer named Elke Loof-Koehler moved to Ucluelet from the B.C. Interior and bought an unsightly piece of property on a reclaimed “island” in Ucluelet harbour. The land had been a wartime seaplane base and ammunition dump. It was encumbered by concrete bunkers, questionable chemical deposits and at least one failed mortgage from the then-troubled Aaron Acceptance Corp. Loof-Koehler scooped up the property, worked all the appropriate miracles and created the Tauca Lea Resort and Spa, the first of what would become a string of extraordinarily successful new developments. Around the same time, the District of Ucluelet made the clever or lucky decision to hire Felice Mazzoni as its director of planning. Mazzoni had grown up in Ucluelet – his father was a forest-industry faller – so he knew well what was loveable about the town and what was not. He had also studied at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo and at the University of Victoria and had done certificate programs at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning and at SFU’s City Program. In 1998, his first full year as district planner, Mazzoni processed exactly one development permit: a long-time resident wanted to adjust his rear lot line. Even for a community of less than 2,000 people, it was ridiculously slow. But Mazzoni used his time well, creating a new official community plan (OCP) that imagined and accommodated the implications of a sudden build-up. In the next year, he wrote and processed the zoning bylaw that would give the plan structure. As a result, Mazzoni and the district council were ready when Loof-Koehler and the retreating forestry giant Weyerhaeuser Co. started putting up huge chunks of land for comprehensive redevelopment. They began by asking for what, to some municipalities, seemed unthinkable: generous land dedications, amenity trade-offs and density bonuses. Mazzoni and senior council members travelled to places such as Whistler to look at what had gone wrong and what had worked best in their developments. Then they came back and added more details, most notably a policy insisting that all comprehensive developments set aside 20 per cent of the total new construction for staff and low-income housing. Mazzoni also looked at the nature of development – at how it would affect the environment, how it would change the feel of the community and how it might alienate residents from what makes Ucluelet a place worth visiting. The OCP demanded that developers protect generous water access and that they contribute to the Wild Pacific Trail system within the community. To maintain the rural character, the district also walked away from the curb-and-storm-sewer construction typical of most suburban neighbourhoods. Instead it mandated walking paths set back behind “French drains,” ditches filled with crushed rock that accommodate storm runoff effectively but filter it and deliver it more slowly into the ocean. This may seem banal – a matter of concern only to municipal-planning wonks – but everybody in Ucluelet cares about storm runoff. Being an old-fashioned kind of guy, Mazzoni doesn’t talk about rain in millimetres. He doesn’t even use inches. “Ucluelet,” he says, “gets 14 feet of rain a year. We got three feet in one two-and-a-half week period last year, and the only neighbourhoods that weren’t flooding were the ones that have French drains.” As the pace of development picked up – and as some of the new policies started to have effect – people began to notice. New developments were attractive (and not flooding). There were new trails and nature parks, a skateboard park, an outdoor basketball and roller-hockey facility and a million-dollar sports field. And Ucluelet extracted $6 million to put toward a new community centre. When Weyerhaeuser submitted its 280-hectare development plan to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for adjudication, the federation honoured Ucluelet with its Sustainable Community Planning Award. More recognition followed from the World Urban Forum and the Union of B.C. Municipalities, and in 2006 Mazzoni and his Malaspina-based planning team were invited to the Livcom Awards in Hangzhou, China. They won a gold award for the sustainability provisions of the OCP, a silver award as the most livable community under 20,000 people and an open-category Global Award as one of the most sustainable communities of any size, anywhere on the planet. Small wonder that the Planning Institute of B.C. followed up to declare Mazzoni this year’s Planner of the Year. If it all seems uncomplicated and unequivocally promising, you might still consider the challenge (or the opportunity) that Ucluelet faces in the next five years. The town, which grew by 25 per cent in the five years leading up to 2006, listed a total of 725 private residences on the 2006 census. But Elke Loof-Koehler’s latest project – anchored by the increasingly famous Jack Nicklaus-designed Wyndansea Oceanfront Golf Resort – will add 900 new units, ranging from individual hotel rooms to international trophy homes. And that doesn’t include the impact of a build-out on Weyerhaeuser’s property or Westlake and Martin’s Ittatsoo Bay development or of a couple of other slightly smaller investments. Mazzoni, who remembers well the year in which he managed developments worth exactly zero dollars (lot-line variances don’t cost anything), currently has $900 million worth of work on the books. That’s a little more than what you would normally expect in a city the size of Victoria. Loof-Koehler’s $650-million Wyndansea project is sure to have the biggest impact. Marketing director Stephen Duke has all the numbers: Wyndansea’s 35 bare waterfront lots, which have been selling for an average price of $2.2 million each, are available by invitation only. Buyers automatically become members of the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club worldwide, giving them access to play at any of 25 golf resorts from Korea to Croatia, from Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas to St. Lucia and the Bahamas. “They’ll get free accommodations and they won’t have to pay anything extra to play,” Duke says. Wyndansea will also include “the first real five-star hotel on the West Coast – no disrespect to what they’re doing at the Wickaninnish,” and a deep-water port for the private-yacht set. Duke notes that there are currently no places on the west coast of Vancouver Island where 100-footers can tie up and provision, an inconvenience that Wyndansea plans to address. By the time Duke stops enthusing about the Ucluelet of his dreams, you get a sense of a very different West Coast community – one where, for starters, you’re going to have to dress better. One of the other significant “amenities” on the books for improvement is the Tofino Airport, one of those quaint, uncontrolled former military installations that offer the travelling public nothing more promising than a patch of bumpy tarmac. With no terminal, no lights, no navigational equipment and no fences, pilots are forced to turn around and fly home in all but uncommonly good weather. One private jet is reported to have overflown recently because the pilot noticed – almost too late – that there was a cyclist riding across the runway. The federal government has turned the airport, including 160 hectares of land and a nine-hole golf course, over to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, but the district has no money for the kinds of upgrades that five-star travellers have come to expect. As a result, Loof-Koehler’s development company, Marine Drive Properties Ltd., invested in a feasibility study that resulted in an upgrade plan that could, if funded, provide a terminal building, an instrument landing system and, ideally, a customs branch to accommodate international travellers – all by 2009. At time of writing, Wyndansea was looking for some provincial and federal buy-in and for a management company to make it all happen. In the meantime Ian Gill, executive director of Ecotrust Canada, points out that some big-money travellers already have a reasonable alternative. Westjet Airlines Ltd. runs a host of regular flights in and out of the airport in Comox, which is not much farther from the West Coast than the BC Ferries terminal in Nanaimo. Given how quickly the ferries run, “you can jump on a plane in Calgary and beat me to Ucluelet from Vancouver,” Gill says. Ecotrust has been committed to the West Coast for more than a decade, funding everything from a Tofino fish-packing plant to the remarkably successful, privately run Tofino bus system. Ecotrust is an unusual kind of environmental organization, Gill says. “We’re a do tank more than a think tank,” he says, engaging at the community level and financing businesses or projects that will make those communities economically and environmentally sustainable. The most ambitious plan, on the West Coast at least, involves Ecotrust taking over management of the First Nations-owned Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd., which now controls all the tree-farm licences that were once in the hands of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., International Forest Products Ltd. (Interfor) or Weyerhaeuser. Gill, the others at Ecotrust, the Nuu-chah-nulth people and an optimistic contingent of West Coast forestry workers are hoping this experiment in sustainable forestry will ensure that the resource industry continues to play a role in the local economy. Already loggers have resumed cutting in the old-growth forest, and they have done so in a way that, so far, has received general approval from groups such as the Friends of Clayoquot Sound. The one other wrinkle in the local political, economic and social fabric also involves the promise of settling First Nations land claims. The Toquaht Nation is currently considering a settlement that could both break the logjam for other Nuu-chah-nulth negotiations and change the economic landscape for everyone in the Ucluelet area. In addition to the economic component, the settlement would give the Toquaht people title to 1,300 hectares of settlement lands and 379 hectares of traditional land – including 42 kilometres of oceanfront. A good portion of that land could be raised as fee simple, developed and sold, creating a stunning economic opportunity for the 120 band members and adding to the potential for development in what is currently a cramped environment. A ratification vote is scheduled for mid-October. At a certain age you begin to notice that, somewhere in the country, there is always a population of 20-something hard-bodies – beautiful people with no visible means of support and an enviable lifestyle. In the 1980s they were all hanging around in Banff, populating what was then known as the UIC Ski Team. In the ’90s, they moved on to Whistler, after it started to develop but before it got too expensive for people who didn’t have professional incomes. Now those youngsters have washed up on the West Coast. They’ve traded the skis for wetsuits and surfboards, but they still look the same. You see the odd one working in local restaurants, stores or hotels, but mostly you see them on the beach. According to Kita Shipsey, head instructor at the Pacific Surf School, Long Beach is “one of the most beautiful places in the world to surf,” thanks to an insistent wind and sandy-bottomed beaches that make it safer for beginners and veterans alike. Where once you could walk the beaches of Pacific Rim park for hours in the off-season and never see a soul, now it is rare to be completely out of sight of the surfers. Again, Long Beach has been discovered. You might well ask where the 20-somethings will go next, when, and who will pick up the minimum-wage resort-industry jobs when they’re gone. Mazzoni has helped put Ucluelet ahead of the game by mandating affordable housing, but Tofino is not so blessed, and, if values keep rising as they have, house prices in Ucluelet and Tofino will hit Whistler levels just in time for the Olympics. “It’s a bubble,” says Ecotrust’s Gill. “And it’s still not clear whether that overvaluation will be the salvation of those communities or the thing that finally kills them.” Gill, Mazzoni, Loof-Koehler, Westlake and Martin and a host of others are working hard to make sure that the outcome is salvation. And if any community is going to fulfill the promise of Mazzoni’s official community plan – the promise of sustainability – this is it, says Wyndansea marketing director Duke. “Luxury and sustainability go hand in hand. Our market is upscale. They can afford to lead the way.” Related stories: How Ucluelet is Remaking Itself – Slideshow