After more than three years of bitter legal wrangling with local environmental groups, Parks Canada has issued Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise a building permit for its seven-storey convention centre.
The federal agency issued the permit on March 20, the day after it renewed the Chateau's permit to withdraw 525,750 cubic metres of water annually from Lake Louise for the next 10 years.
Construction on the convention centre could start as early as this summer, however hotel officials say no start date has been set. The goal is to open the new multi-purpose facility in spring 2004.
"It's been a lengthy but worthwhile process and we've proven the soundness of the development project in both the courts and in numerous studies,'' said Anne White, the Chateau's director of public relations.
The 13,805-square metre convention centre has been fraught with contention following its approval by the federal government in 1998 in the face of strong opposition from Canadians.
Local environmentalists, who lost their fight in the courts to stop the development, say the battle is not yet over and that there may be further legal avenues.
"I don't think it's over because I think people are still really upset about this,'' said Ed Whittingham, a director with the Banff Environmental Action and Research (BEAR) Society.
"I think there are still legal recourses available, but I can't say what they are at this point. We haven't given up on this.''
Mike McIvor, past president of the Bow Valley Naturalists, said news that Parks Canada issued the building permit for the convention centre was "greatly disappointing."
"We had continued to hope that either the federal government would review their decision and realize they had made a bad one, or that the company would do the right thing and acknowledge that this was not a facility intended to serve park visitors, that the impacts were not justifiable, and that they'd make a living based on what they had,'' he said.
The seven-storey meeting facility includes a central 700-seat meeting hall, six meeting rooms to serve groups of between 30 and 250 people and 81 guest rooms overlooking the lake.
The hotel had to meet a series of conditions before the building permit was issued, including the return of 20 acres of land to the national park, better water conservation and energy measures and a commitment to adjust hotel operations if monitoring picked up any negative environmental impacts.
Michel Boivin, superintendent of Lake Louise, said the Chateau is not allowed to draw any more water from the lake than it has in the past, and must also undertake a stricter monitoring program.
He said the meeting facility would also be off limits to the public and only be used by hotel guests during the busy tourist months of June, July, August and September.
Boivin said the federal agency would not issue an occupancy permit until the upgrade of the Lake Louise sewage treatment plant is complete, which is expected sometime next year.
"We've been quite extensive in the environmental assessment and all those conditions have been imposed on them,'' said Boivin.
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