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Kelowna's precarious perch: The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America

The Kelowna Mountain suspension bridges are now open to the public for those interested to walk across; at this point there is no charge. - Contributed
The Kelowna Mountain suspension bridges are now open to the public for those interested to walk across; at this point there is no charge.
— image credit: Contributed

Before venturing across “the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America,” there’s one very important piece of information to know: No government body has checked the structure to ensure it is safe.

Unlike a zipline at Zip Zone or a chairlift on Big White, unlike the bridge one drives across Mission Creek or the aerial tram ferrying guests up Grouse Mountain, the four wooden structures at Kelowna Mountain have gone in entirely without government intervention or approval.

“There seems to be a real gap when it comes to these structures…It’s one of those things that just falls through the cracks in terms of all the different bureaucracies,” said Ron Fralick, planning manager at the Regional District of the Central Okanagan, the closest government body left to deal with Kelowna Mountain.

Dubbed the longest set of pedestrian suspension bridges in the world, the bridges apparently fall outside the BC Safety Authority’s mandate and there are no issues to be covered off by the B.C. Building Code.

The Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure are not responsible for ensuring anyone’s safety on the spans either—the former looks at alterations to land in B.C. and the latter at regular bridges.

This could very well change in years to come as there are new adventure tourism projects being built in Squamish and Campbell River which plan to include suspension bridges. But for now, the best examples, the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, aren’t covered by provincial regulations or safety inspections either.

Kelowna MountainThe Capilano Suspension Bridge is perhaps the most similar project to Kelowna Mountain as it too is on private property; but several calls and emails to the media liaison and sales manager asking about safety standards for the bridge went unanswered.

The Lynn Valley suspension bridge sits in a public park operated by the District of North Vancouver and district planner Susan Rogers was more than happy to explain that the bridge is checked in bi-annual safety inspections on a maintenance plan the municipality uses to ensure visitors to the park are protected. The bridge was built in 1920, predating today’s bylaws and standards, but if it were to be constructed today, it would at the very least require a development permit, as would any developer trying to put in a suspension bridge on private land within the district, she explained.

This is where the big problem lies in the Central Okanagan. The developer who owns Kelowna Mountain has not worked cooperatively with the regional district, even using his lawyer to block RDCO staff from entering the property over the course of his relationship with that government body. Whether, by the letter of the law, he was required to involve the district in much of what he has done is a bit of a legal quagmire, however.

According to the Kelowna Mountain website, developer Mark Consiglio had a vision for the property from the moment he saw it, just after the 2003 wildfires.

Consiglio had a history of ups and downs in the development industry at that point. He got his start in the mid-’80s, while working as a waiter at The Keg Restaurant, by winning a $10-million federal Scientific Research Tax Credit to develop an enviro-friendly car named Enterra, based on the Pontiac Fiero. According to information provided to the Capital News by onetime Kelowna Mountain spokesperson John Harding, when the Kelowna Mountain project first went public in 2006, that $10-million grant became seed funding for his first real estate aspirations as the Fiero line of cars was discontinued, forcing Consiglio to close his production plant.

Within a few years, he was racking up legal issues over a development in Ucluelet where bills were going unpaid as he went through an ugly and public divorce.

Those matters resolved, and now married to Nicola Consiglio, his name has remained off the court registry since the early 2000s.

He has completed a townhouse development at Big White and The Cottages at Secret Point, a $20-million vacation spot on Okanagan Lake, the proceeds of which were used to start Kelowna Mountain—both its housing development and amenity park.

Kelowna Mountain, where the suspension bridges sit, was originally pitched as a ski and snowboard amenity for a 55-lot housing subdivision below.

The park is in the regional district and the proposed housing development sits within the City of Kelowna’s boundaries.

He has only managed to build nine of the houses, those near Chute Lake Road, since the initial announcement and there were legal issues at the time.

In November 2008, the main mortgage broker working for Kelowna Mountain, Richard Bruce Dowding, was suspended by the Financial Institutions Commission for failing to ensure the funds would be used for the development and questionable record keeping in connection with the work.

Though revenue from the housing was originally meant to fund the mountain development, one can surmise the two are either operating separately or it’s now the other way around.

Kelowna Mountain amphitheatreUsing a new name, Kelowna Mountain: Bridges and Vineyards, the mountain now appears to be focused around an icewine business with the suspension bridges as the main attraction, and includes an 800-seat amphitheatre.

Efforts to contact Mark Consiglio went unanswered at press time. It has been months since the City of Kelowna has dealt with him and he has yet to respond to a request from the regional district to come in and explain what exactly the current scheme is, making it difficult to ascertain how Kelowna Mountain is poised to be a profitable venture.

According to Tony Stewart, who chairs the national Vinters Quality Alliance board, it’s possible to do an icewine only vineyard—Paradise Ranch stands as an example—but it’s not an ideal specialization anymore.

“The reason it did work was the margins in icewine were very lucrative, but as time went on and more and more products were brought in from outside areas, the margins have kind of eroded,” he said.  “I know it’s a little more challenging in Asia and other markets to maintain the same gross.”

A tip to the Capital News suggests it is still possible to invest in Kelowna Mountain for a minimum investment of $10,000, at seven per cent return. The investment is backed by the property—the 252-acre mountain park and 388-acres for housing—and MacBeth MIC, a mortgage investment corporation.

At the grand opening, held in July, the investors and construction workers who had worked on the project spoke to local media of rumours Consiglio is selling shares for $60,000 with a $50-million target fundraising goal.

The figure also shows up in an online blog by an excited prospective investor, a UBC Vancouver Master of Business Administration student, who describes being taken on an investment tour targeting the same sum.

One of the business websites includes information on the Kelowna Mountain Community In Waiting, noting the Kelowna Mountain Limited Partnership was formed in 2011 selling 850 Class A securities units for a share in two-thirds of the land development. It speaks of a ski hill, mountain bike and suspension bridge park.

What the snowboarders would ski on, if this is still part of the plan, has variously been described as man-made snow, synthetic snow and even salt, as told to a reporter for The Kelowna Daily Courier in July of this year.

This plan cannot be on the books for anytime soon, however, as the  BC Safety Authority has indicated the once operational chairlift does not have a permit because the licence belonging to the installation contractor has expired.

Similar checks with WorkSafe BC found the mountain was cited for unsafe business practices during construction of the suspension bridges. First, there were no engineering documents on site to work from when a WorkSafe inspector visited and second, the workers were not tied off to overhead safety equipment as they constructed the spans.

Just where this is all heading is raising a lot of questions among local bureaucracies. The regional district is still hoping to work with Consiglio on a compromise, of sorts, as the property does not conform to the demands of the Official Community Plan bylaw for the area.

Unfortunately, as much of what has been done got started before the OCP bylaw came into effect in 2012, the regional district’s demands sit in muddy legal waters.

“The whole reason we started down the road of developing an Official Community Plan for the South Slopes was direction from the previous board because they were so concerned about the land-altering activities that were happening,” said Fralick, noting other developers were raising eyebrows as well.

“For those that were involved in the Official Community Plan, they’ll recall that this landowner had actually made an attempt to have our OCP stalled…He was fighting it at the eleventh hour, trying to have our board delay that OCP. Now we can only surmise what his intentions were at that time, but a lot of that might have been knowledge that once the OCP was in place, he would be subject to some regional district requirements.”

A very preliminary environmental assessment by a biologist Consiglio hired suggests there are wetlands and rock features, streams and hillsides which would all require development permit negotiations, Fralick said.

As for whether the district would be liable if someone were injured on one of the bridges, the RDCO’s legal advisors say no. As construction started before the formal OCP went in, there are likely no permits needed at the regional level.

Those who choose to cross the bridges have to trust this developer has done the right thing and conducted the necessary safety checks and obtained insurance to cover any losses, Fralick said.

Twitter: @jaswrites

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