By Rebekah Benoit
As plans move ahead for the development of the downtown core, and the Snye along with it, the citizens of the SOS – Save Our Snye – group have voiced their concerns that the vision for downtown espoused by council and administration is not necessarily one shared by everyone in Fort McMurray.
The group held a meeting on Thursday to raise their concerns regarding the current state of the Snye, which is urgently in need of dredging, as well as the possibility of development along the waterway that might put the lazy waters of the Snye permanently out of reach for the everyday residents of the region.
The current plan for Fort McMurray’s downtown will see multi-storey condo developments built along the Snye, a reality which the group says it is not necessarily opposed to. The problem, according to SOS members, is about the lack of consultation which has seen the Snye closed to motorized vehicles, despite the waterway’s long history as a safe launching spot for floatplanes and boats.
Phil Meagher, longtime Fort McMurray councilor who spends much of his summer leisure time on the waterways of Fort McMurray, including the Snye, in his kayak, believes the concerns are premature.
“Most worries are exactly that – just worries. Eight per cent of the time, they never come true,” he says. “We do have a city centre development plan that is going to happen, and there is going to be development along the Snye. What people are afraid of, once we get that development there, is that it will just be the rich who can enjoy it.”
“There is always going to be public access [to the Snye],” Meagher continues. “Nobody can own a body of water. You can own waterfront beach area – your property goes into the water – but people can still paddleboat right up to the beach. People think they own right down to the water, but that’s not right.”
He adds that the city fully intends to maintain public access to the Snye, ensuring that residents can easily access the waterway and enjoy it even in the midst of new development.
Meagher adds that, when it comes to development of such sensitive resources, council’s goal is to strike a reasonable compromise between the many different groups who have a stake in the future of the waterway.
“There are a few people, and myself, I might be one of them, who like the way the Snye is right now. I can go down there and play, get on my paddleboard or get into my kayak and have a good time, or drop a fishing pole in,” Meagher acknowledges. “But there are also a lot of people who don’t like it as it is right now. They think it’s almost a little too rustic – there are lots of flies and the sand isn’t the prettiest. Some people figure that if you put enough cement in, it will make it enjoyable for people. We have to find a balance.”
Meagher believes the city needs to look at how other major centres have developed their waterfronts to make them accessible while still allowing for development, pointing to Stanley Park in Vancouver as such an example.
“We need to open this up for everyone to enjoy, not just some of us because we happen to know how to row. We need to make it a public space for walking, biking, roller-blading,” he says.
Meagher himself says that he loves the Snye and doesn’t want to see it become the playground of the rich. “People should know that I’m on their side – I don’t want to see it become a private Richie Rich place. I want to see it open to the people,” he says. “But you also can’t just go around fear mongering and worrying about the sky falling in.”
Tyran Ault, who is seeking a seat on city council in this October’s municipal election, agrees that public access to the Snye will be an important feature. He attended the meeting on Thursday, and says that he shares the group’s concerns about the need for deeper public engagement on issues surrounding the Snye.
“I’ve heard right from [SOS members’] mouths that they’re not against development. There’s a big misconception out there that they’re anti-development,” explains Ault. “From my interactions with them, the majority of them are really concerned with the process that has been undertaken.”
The group has expressed concern about the Snye being converted to a demotorized zone, saying that closing the Snye to boats and floatplanes forces such crafts to launch in the fast-flowing Clearwater River, a more dangerous prospect than the quiet waters of the Snye.
“There are lots of concerns about the safety of launching in the Clearwater, and with the Snye being a very calm body of water, you can see that it’s a preferred boat launch,” says Ault, adding that the Snye has always been a favourite place to watch floatplanes take off.
“I’ve been here 23 years; I grew up downtown. We always used to go down and watch the floatplanes,” Ault says. “We used to go fishing down there as a kid, or just walk around and hang out. The Snye has always been a part of my life.”
Ault says he would like to see a solution that meets the needs of all the Snye’s stakeholders, both those who favour motorized watercraft and those who don’t. Like Meagher, he points to another urban centre which has made good use of its waterfront while still allowing for development.
“Just look at Victoria, at their wharf area. They’ve got development, and they’ve also got motorized watercraft,” Ault argues. “I’d love to see us move in that direction. It’s a beautiful setting for mixed-use buildings, things like snack shops and ice cream stands. It could be the best of both worlds. I’m not a technical expert, but I think there is a solution here.”
Ault also agrees that there has not been enough consultation, an issue that he believes has prevented the public from embracing the downtown redevelopment plan. “This seems to be a recurring problem that I’ve heard overall in the downtown redevelopment – the process is the most frustrating part of all this,” Ault says. “There are still a lot of people that aren’t sure if they’re for or against this development, because of the lack of information sharing.”
“From my perspective, you can never have too much communication. The more you engage residents, the more they’ll support the plan, whether they like it or not. They’ll feel respected,” Ault continues.
A report will be presented to council on the Snye at an upcoming council meeting, and Ault encourages anyone who has an opinion on the Snye’s development to come forward and have their voice heard by council. “We can have those motorized vehicles and have the condos at the same time. This has worked in other communities – I can’t see why it can’t work here,” he says.