Even six years after retiring from the NHL, Len Barrie still sports the hockey do-his shaggy blond hair is just long enough to peek out from under the back of a helmet. And though he's now the developer behind the largest planned community in Western Canada, he still has a fondness for locker-room couture: Barrie strolls into his regular Tuesday meeting on a recent morning in flip-flops, cargo shorts and a Lululemon T-shirt, his hair still wet from a post-workout shower.
As he takes his place at the head of the table, he exchanges barbs with his lieutenants.
"We dug up a bunch of arrowheads for you," one engineer shoots back.
Then it's down to business. As Barrie slumps in his chair, Les Bjola, his development manager and de facto deputy, launches into an update of a proposed interchange for the Trans-Canada Highway that will lead to Barrie's Whistler-esque Bear Mountain resort, 20 minutes northwest of Victoria. The company is waiting on an environmental and archeological assessment that will determine whether the new road is feasible-there's concern it will upset the local ecology and plow through sacred First Nations sites (hence the arrowhead jab). To protest the proposed new interchange, activists have been occupying tree-borne platforms along the route since April, 2007.
This is just the latest showdown in Bear Mountain's six-year history. When it's finally complete, Barrie's $2.4-billion complex will encompass 1,300 acres and include more than 5,000 residential units (a mix of single-family homes, condos and townhouses), more than 600,000 square feet of commercial space, plus two golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus.
So far, the former NHLer-and the project's majority shareholder-has sold more than half a billion dollars worth of real estate. (Residential prices range from $250,000 for a 5,500-square-foot lot to $2.5 million for a two-acre estate, sans house.) Meanwhile, Bear Mountain Village is filling up with bars, restaurants and hotels. The winding approach to the 156-room Westin Bear Mountain Victoria Golf Resort & Spa is lined with a high-end sushi bar, the Jack's Place pub (named in honour of Nicklaus), the as-yet-to-be-completed Bear Mountain Village Market, and a spindly collection of construction cranes.
All of which makes Barrie's investors, including a roster of NHL players past and present, very happy (they've put $230 million into the project). "It's the most audacious development on Vancouver Island," says builder Fraser McColl. "I mean, how can you not be impressed by what has happened?" McColl, who moved to Bear Mountain during the early development phase, is building the Stonehaven, a four-storey condo complex on the Mountain golf course. "Most people love it or hate it," he says. As for Barrie himself, McColl has this to say: "Obviously Len is the guiding spirit, and no one else could have pulled off what he has. Most people thought it would never happen. Give Barrie credit: He didn't listen to anyone else."
To his fans, Barrie is among the vanguard of Western Canada's brash and belligerent new bourgeoisie: Success is the only option; opposition be damned. To his opponents, he's the Beelzebub of Bear Mountain, a man bent on laying waste to the island's pristine wilderness, spreading the brimstone of condos, fairways and big-box plazas.
"The bear has come over the mountain, and look what he has done," says Vicky Husband, the grande dame of Canada's conservation movement and a 40-year resident of the tiny Highlands district into which Bear Mountain is expanding. Husband says Barrie has stopped at nothing to move the development forward. "It has split the community asunder," she says.
This is not the only developer-versus-conservationist battle that's being waged in B.C., but it's by far the largest (see "B.C.'s contentious construction," page 73). Since 2002, when Barrie started knocking down trees in the hills northwest of Victoria, he has enraged environmentalists, town councillors, local residents and aboriginal groups-and done it with a certain amount of glee. "What you see is what you get," says Barrie. "I call a spade a spade, and if you don't like it, who cares? I have lots of friends."
Now, Barrie is embarking on his second project. In mid-2007, he paid $2.1 million for a chunk of oceanfront property (including a marina) near Mill Bay, 40 kilometres north of Victoria. "The Victoria International Airport is right across the Saanich Inlet," says Barrie, standing on the pebbly foreshore of Mill Bay, pointing east. "We'll also expand the marina, which means Americans can dock here and easily fly out."
The transformation of this leafy hillside sprinkled with dowdy houses into a hopping condo development is bound to cause trouble-especially if Barrie uses the same tactics he took to Bear Mountain. "Generally, a business must look out for its shareholders," says Bob McMinn, a Highlands resident and one of Barrie's most vocal opponents. "They do this with the soft soap or with the hammer. Bear Mountain brought the hammer."
Barrie never made much of a mark in the NHL. At 18, he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the sixth round. He was a gritty but faceless journeyman, skating with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, L.A. Kings and, finally, the Florida Panthers. In October, 2000, in a game against New Jersey, Barrie took a shot in the kidney that required surgery. Nonetheless, that season was Barrie's best: five goals and 18 assists in 60 games. But the injury had left him in pain and "pissing blood." In 2001, at 32, he hung up his skates.
Barrie was already an avid golfer-his house in suburban Victoria, where he lived with his wife, Kristy, and their two kids, backed on to the swank Royal Colwood Golf Club. He teed off there as often as five times a week. The 95-year-old course, which prides itself on its "natural and unspoiled" setting, wends through a forest of 450-year-old Douglas firs and majestic Garry oaks, home to deer, herons and bald eagles.
But in April, 1999, Barrie had decided he wanted a better view of the course. So he hired a contractor to cut down 28 trees-Douglas firs, an arbutus and a few wild cherries-that ran between his property and the green. As it turned out, some of the trees were as much as 16 metres beyond Barrie's property line. Then, as now, he insisted it was all a misunderstanding; he thought the trees were in his yard. (Besides, he adds, many were "half dead" anyhow.)
The Royal Colwood sued Barrie for $18,500 and, after several appeals, he settled for $14,700. But he and his then-nine-year-old son were barred for life.
To fill his days, the newly retired Barrie began riding his bike into the hills east of his house. Over the years, mountain bikers had cut trails through the 1,000-acre lot, and these were drawing a growing number of people to the area. The increased traffic irked the Highlands council, which was dedicated to keeping out the big-box sprawl that characterizes neighbouring municipalities like Langford and Colwood. "We wanted to build and maintain a rural community," says McMinn, former mayor of the rustic town, which has just 2,000 full-time residents, many of whom live on five-acre-plus homesteads.
The first major developer to come sniffing around Highlands, in 1993, got nowhere. In fact, Vancouver's First National Properties ended up suing McMinn and the town itself, alleging foul play. In her ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gina Quijano found that the mayor's actions-including purposeful stalling and the sharing of privileged information-met the test that his conduct was "so malicious, oppressive and high-handed that it offends the court's sense of decency." The judge ordered McMinn to pay $10,000 in punitive damages. McMinn, another administrator and the district itself had to hand over another $500,000. McMinn resigned, though the decision was later overturned by the B.C. Court of Appeal.
Barrie knew none of this as he crashed through the bush on his mountain bike one fall day in 2001. When his bike chain snapped, Barrie was left stranded on the steep western slope of the mountain. He looked southeast and caught his first glimpse of what would later become the site of the Bear Mountain resort. "The view over the ocean, Victoria, Esquimalt and Colwood was unbelievable," remembers Barrie. Directly below him was an undulating canyon that ran for a couple of kilometres east to west. It was heavily treed and dotted with boulders and rock outcroppings, but Barrie could imagine a fairway running through it. He ditched his bike and hiked off the mountain with a head full of inspiration.
A few days later, he returned and "walked off" the approaches, greens and tee boxes. He liked what his feet and golf sense told him, and was determined to buy the property, owned by Western Forest Products (WFP), a large, B.C.-based lumber producer.
Bob Flitton was the land manager of WFP's lot. He'd been a deputy minister in B.C.'s long-reigning Social Credit government, which had encouraged the development of the province's ample natural resources. In 1991, when the Socreds lost to the NDP, things had changed. The economy stagnated, and tradespeople fled to oil-rich Alberta. There was little energy, or appetite, for the type of large-scale development the Socreds had embraced. Nonetheless, in the mid-'90s, Flitton submitted a modest development proposal to the Highlands and Langford councils: 149 houses, a small commercial area, a lodge and an 18-hole golf course. It was estimated the new 424-acre subdivision would add 400 people to Highlands' population base. Flitton had dealt with the Highlands council before-he'd even donated a large chunk of land for the new municipal office. Still, they turned him down.
By the time Barrie called in 2001, Flitton was ready to unload the lot-let someone else try and get past the council. After a few conversations with Barrie, however, Flitton became convinced that he knew zip about real estate development. "Here was some guy I knew nothing about, other than what I had read in the papers, calling me wanting to buy this land," says Flitton, who now works as Barrie's residential project manager. Flitton demanded to speak with someone-anyone-with experience. Barrie put him in touch with his lawyer, and negotiations began.
Barrie's bid got a boost from an unlikely source: the U.S. Department of Commerce. In August, 2001, the DoC imposed a 19.31% tariff on Canadian softwood lumber imports. Suddenly, the margins on WFP's lot of second-growth forest were significantly tighter, and the company agreed to sell it to Barrie for about $8 million. He had 60 days to come up with the money. "I had no partners, and I wasn't sure if the golf course would even work," he says. "But I'm a gambler, and I put up $300,000 (U.S.), non-refundable. I had to close the sale or lose the deposit."
Barrie began working the phones. His first equity partners were NHL goaltender Mike Vernon and Barrie's brother-in-law. Soon after, Allen Vandekerkhove, the former owner of the Payless Gas chain, floated Barrie $3 million. On Dec. 28, 2001, Barrie and WFP sealed the deal. Then the trouble began.
Barrie's vision for Bear Mountain is ambitious: an entire village carved into the mountainside, complete with restaurants, shops, hotels and a pretty town square. Lining the fairways of the world-class golf courses will be thousands of residences, from condos to estates. When Barrie started shopping around his plan, not many people believed he could pull it off. For one thing, Vancouver Island had never seen a development of this size. And besides, the guy behind it was a hockey jock with zero development experience. "We were skeptical," says Frank Bourree, a Victoria tourism consultant. "But Barrie has proven everyone wrong. His leadership and tenacity have driven the entire initiative. Bear Mountain has become a world-class facility."
Getting the project going has required muscle-but then, Barrie was never afraid of a fight.
Because Barrie's lot is sandwiched between Langford and Highlands, he needed zoning and building permits from both districts. Langford was no problem-the place is a property developer's heaven, with councillors who seemingly don't know how to say no. Bjola, a development consultant, came on board to draft a proposal for a housing development and golf course. By the spring of 2002, Langford had granted Barrie all the permits he needed.
Highlands, however, had no intention of playing along. Barrie was planning to build a second golf course, plus 100 residences on a 30-acre chunk up against the Langford border. His proposal, says conservationist Husband, "provided no buffer zone and went against everything the residents of the Highlands stand for."
With monthly carrying costs of $20,000, Barrie couldn't afford to wait on this "group of amateur politicians and environmental activists." With nary a permit in hand, he sent in chainsaws, excavators and skidders to start work on the golf course. "It sent a clear message," says Barrie. "This is big business, this is our partnership's land, and you guys had better pay attention."
Highlands wouldn't budge, so Barrie tightened the screws. His Plan B had always been to log the land if it didn't get rezoned. He'd already cut down $1.7 million worth of timber from the lot, selling about half of it back to WFP. "The worst-case scenario: I would have clear-cut the property," says Barrie. "It would have been a crime scene to do that, but it was all logged 80 years ago."
During a presentation to Highlands council in August, 2002, Barrie stated his intentions: "I'm the guy paying the bills here, and the interest clock is running on this. Let's be clear: Either we move ahead on this tonight or we don't. If we don't, okay. But the tree-cutting permits will be on your desk Monday morning."
The Highlands council relented, and Barrie got his rezoning.
Construction on the Langford part of the property, meanwhile, was well under way. Barrie's first move had been to start carving out the golf course. It was risky: Most developers presell the residential lots, then use the proceeds to finance the course. But getting the boot from the Royal Colwood still rankled-he wanted a place of his own where he could tee off. That meant raising almost $20 million. Barrie turned to former teammate Ray Whitney, then a left-winger with the Columbus Blue Jackets, for help.
Whitney's financial adviser had "90 reasons why he shouldn't invest in Bear Mountain," says Barrie. "We got it down to 45, then down to 20 and 12; then they flew out to Victoria," he says. Whitney's $3-million investment made him the fourth-largest shareholder in Bear Mountain. Barrie says he learned a lot from the legal wrangling, and it made it easier to approach other investors.
Other NHL bright and lesser lights invested, including Whitney's teammate Mike Sillinger, Rob Blake, Gary Roberts, Greg Adams, Joe Nieuwendyk, Matt Pettinger, Mike Vernon, Rob Niedermayer, Ryan Smyth, Scott Mellanby, Sean Burke and Trevor Kidd.
But Barrie was running out of money. His cost estimates, he realized, had been way out of whack: He'd budgeted $8.5 million for the golf course; it ended up coming in at $18 million. Building roads, he'd figured, would eat up $5 million; they cost double that. B.C.'s hot construction market was partly to blame.
The real estate boom also meant that demand for Bear Mountain's properties skyrocketed, however. Lots doubled or tripled in price as interest rates dropped and pent-up demand erupted. Barrie realized his resort could be bigger-much bigger. Over the next several months, the project grew from 1,500 residences, one course and a smattering of commercial space to its current girth of almost 6,000 doors, over 200 hotel rooms (the Westin Bear Mountain opened in 2005), a 12,000-square-foot spa, three restaurants and an expansive gym and athletic club.
The first 10 phases of lots sold out; so did four luxury condo buildings, three townhome developments and most of the quarter-share offerings. By October, 2007, presales totalled $400 million. Bear Mountain sold $140 million worth of real estate on one day in November, 2005, a record for Vancouver Island.
It wasn't Bear Mountain itself that caused the biggest trouble for Barrie. Instead, it was the construction of his own 15,000-square-foot house that finally turned First Nations groups against him.
Barrie had chosen a prime spot for his new ranch-style pad, on a steep hillside overlooking the resort. With views of the ocean, Victoria and the Esquimalt naval base, the spot is thick with arbutus trees. It is also, according to the Songhees and Tsartlip First Nations, home to a cave and subterranean lake once thought to be the stuff of legend.
In February, 2005, Cheryl Bryce, the land manager for the Songhees, demanded that Barrie halt construction on the property and conduct an archeological assessment of Bear Mountain. The Langford council agreed, sending Barrie and his company a letter advising them to bring in an archeologist to assess the site. Barrie ignored it. "We couldn't afford to stop," he says.
That spring, Bryce threatened to seek a court injunction to stop construction. Yet, Barrie says, she refused to disclose the exact location of the cave (she says it was to save the sacred site from "scavengers"), and at a May meeting, he went so far as to dispute its very existence. "You know, if we want to blow up a cave and put up a hotel, we will," he told the angry crowd. "I bought the property, I own it, we have the mining rights, so what?"
Eventually, the province and municipality intervened, and Barrie agreed to an archeological survey. But the dispute erupted again in November, 2006, when First Nations activists led Victoria reporters and photographers to a cave whose entrance had been filled with wood debris, tree stumps and old tires. The natives alleged Barrie had purposely destroyed the cave, telling the press he was committing "cultural genocide."
Early on Nov. 17, hundreds of construction workers tussled with protesters near the cave. The RCMP kept the angry groups apart while racial epithets flew. Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, evoked Oka and Ipperwash, two of the most toxic confrontations over native lands in Canadian history.
Barrie admits he helped orchestrate the showdown, though he adds it took little to motivate his workers: "The guys who work up there are not guys who live in Oak Bay [a wealthy Victoria community]and drink tea," he says. "These are guys who have to feed their families and respect what we've done. We have jobs here-not low-paying jobs, but hundreds of hundred-thousand-plus-dollar jobs, and people are going to stand up and defend them."
Nonetheless, he and a group of provincial officials met native leaders around a fire at the Tsartlip band longhouse. "If I was there as Len Barrie, I would have lost it and hit someone," he says. "But I was there as a representative of Bear Mountain, and I had to make this work." In the end, the province, the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, Bear Mountain Development and the City of Langford negotiated a cost-sharing deal for construction of Barrie's long-sought-after, $30-million Bear Mountain Interchange, which will ease congestion and serve residents heading north and into the development. They also worked out an outline of economic opportunities for the Songhees.
That was enough for Chief Robert Sam, who washed his hands of the cave dispute during a press conference in December, 2006: "The dissension comes from the group who have been trying to occupy the mountain-the young people," he said. "We've been trying to tell them that maybe this cave has served its purpose and maybe it's time to move on."
In December, the interchange won formal approval after consultants released their long-awaited archeological and environmental reports. (The road is to be rerouted around a limestone cave, a stand of protected Garry oaks and a pond full of endangered red-legged frogs.) One obstacle remained, however: the Bear Moutain Tree Sit, which had been holding its treetop vigil since April, 2007. In the predawn hours of Feb. 13, up to 50 RCMP officers, some armed with assault rifles, surrounded the protesters' camp and arrested three activists. Soon after, backhoes moved in to clear a path for the new interchange.
As Barrie navigates his white cadillac Escalade up Malahat Drive, a steep and twisting road that leads north from Victoria to bucolic Mill Bay, his mobile rings continuously. One call is from Rick Lanz, the coach of the Victoria Grizzlies, the B.C. Hockey League team that Barrie owns. The NHL's Colorado Avalanche has offered him a job as its scout for Western Canada. "It would be f---ing foolish not to take the offer," Barrie tells him. "Opportunities like this are rare."
After a couple wrong turns and more than a few expletives, we arrive in Mill Bay. This is Barrie's first visit to the property-he bought the lot after swooping over it in a helicopter. Waiting for him are caretaker Jeff Quinton and his realtor, Alex Robertson, a onetime sports reporter who knows Barrie from his days with Victoria's former Western Hockey League team, the Cougars. Robertson, who served a term as director of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, put Barrie onto the property when he heard plans were afoot to run sewer service down the slope to the half-dozen residences and bed-and-breakfasts on the boot-shaped property, as well as the 70-slip marina.
Barrie's plans for Mill Bay aren't as grandiose as the development of Bear Mountain. He'll relocate a 1903 mansion to create a community centre, and build 74 townhouses cantilevered from the hillside. He figures it can be developed for $300 a square foot, including the cost of land. Barrie tromps around the hillside, sharing ideas with three associates from Vancouver's Merrick Architecture.
Back in Bear Mountain, Barrie parks the Escalade at Jack's Place. The pub is filled with old hockey sweaters and other sports relics, including a Lance Armstrong racing jersey. He's there to meet Roger Perry, an engineering consultant, to discuss the best possible route for a new residential road at Bear Mountain-one that's the least likely to provoke controversy. Over iced tea and halibut burgers, they pore over a topographical map and eventually settle on adding a spur to an existing road. One problem: They have to convince a local property owner to sell them the land. "That guy hates us," Barrie says, "but let's make him an offer he can't refuse."
Perry seems relieved. A couple years ago, Barrie probably would have taken a chainsaw to the guy's trees himself. Now, though, he just wants to get the job done. As Perry gathers up his maps and drawings, he tells Barrie: "You have grown so much over the last five years."
After lunch, Barrie jumps back in the SUV and heads for his new house-he needs to talk to the contractor who is building his pool. The place is 15,000 square feet of custom-built luxury. An army of workers are installing custom-milled baseboards, mouldings and doors. Though his kids aren't around much these days-16-year-old Tyson was a first-round draft pick for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, and 19-year-old Victoria moved out after graduating from high school-the place has five cavernous bedrooms, including an almost 1,500-square-foot master suite. It also features an enormous media room, a wine cellar, a full gym and, clinging to the steep mountainside, the pool.
A stone staircase runs under the pool, leading to a grotto reminiscent of Hugh Hefner's at the Playboy mansion. "Oh God," Barrie chuckles, "you aren't going to write about that, are you?" For the first and only time, Barrie appears uncomfortable, almost apologetic.
It quickly passes, as he chatters on about his very own golf course at Bear Mountain, which opened in August, 2004. When it comes to selecting members (who pay a membership fee of $35,000, plus monthly dues of $375), he's cautious. "If you are not a happy person, and I do not care how much money you have, go spend it somewhere else," says Barrie. "It's not a right to be a member of Bear Mountain, it is a privilege. The nice thing is, there is no committee-I am it."