Fernie in the 1960s was quiet until Kaiser started open-pit mining. The influx of people from around the globe brought housing development in areas around Main Town, including the bench above the weigh station, old airport and cemetery areas, as well as highway commercial businesses that offered shopping experiences Fernie hadn’t previously enjoyed.
By 2000, Fernie had attracted developers with plans that included a new golf course, multiple units in Coal Creek, and development of the Hutchinson lands. Soon, all land surrounding Fernie was privately owned. Since then, there has been a group of people intent on stopping development here altogether.
With the latest development known as the Galloway Lands, people have been active. Sitting on Fernie Council for 16 years, seven of those as mayor, I know there is always more to a story than what the public hears. I did a bit of digging and read the first and second application from the developer, Handshake Holdings, and then contacted Reto Barrington to request to speak with him.
Reto has lived in Fernie with wife Shelley and, at different points, their daughters for over 20 years. He was involved with plans for the new golf course. At that time his name was well known as a mover and shaker but with the 2008 market crash and being leveraged in several markets, he declared bankruptcy. His good name disappeared. Despite that, he chose to remain in Fernie, selling their beautiful home and renting. He was determined work his way back – and he has – with the successful Fernie RV Resort and Koocanusa Village development.
But to gain insight into who Reto Barrington is, I wanted to know more about his history. He was born in 1953, youngest of three, to parents Annie and Ben Barrington. Annie and her brother, both from Switzerland, visited Banff with plans to travel to Aspen, Colorado to open a restaurant. But after meeting Ben Barrington in Banff she chose to stay, and within a year, they married.
Annie was a stay at home mom and Ben started a real estate and appraisal business that was eventually moved to Invermere. By this time, Reto and his siblings were on their own.
As a youngster, Reto was a ski racer. He has memories of ski racing at the hill as young as ten and recalls the old wooden towers at the ski hill. His athleticism earned him a spot on the National Ski Team where he raced for over five years, travelling all over the world. He represented Canada at the 1972 Sapporo Olympic Games and came fourth overall in the combined category.
He then studied at the University of Denver in the hotel and restaurant faculty, and then pursued a law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He was called to the bar in 1981, but after working in law for three years decided this wasn’t the right path for him, and instead entered the real estate business.
He and Shelley met at the University of Denver, where she was studying economics during the summer semester. He was still skiing and was late for the spring semester so took the summer quarter, earning 45 credits in four and half months, which was equivalent to a years’ work. Shelley and Reto celebrate a 47th wedding anniversary this year. Their daughter Amy is a lawyer in Calgary and Lauren is in the food service business.
Reto says he paid for his law and undergrad studies working as a tree planter. He oversaw a crew of 20 workers, who, at times, had to be flown into the site in Prince George, BC and northern Alberta.
Over the years, he maintained his involvement in ski racing and volunteered for World Cup Alpine Ski races and served as the Chairman of the 1988 Calgary Olympics for ski racing.
Later, his work took him to Montana, and he was driving through Fernie often. In 1998, he purchased a vacation home with friends in Kragmont, BC on Lake Koocanusa. That’s when he became aware of the opportunity for development and growth in Fernie. In 2004, his real estate and development interests took off in the region.
In 2005, he was aware of the Galloway Lands and first spoke to the owner with the intention of developing the parcel into some type of residential holding.
In 2021, he reinitiated his interest in the property and has worked on the current land rezoning application for two years. When it was taken to the public for the first public engagement process, he considered concerns expressed about certain aspects of the original rezoning application, so he withdrew the application and revisited the project design. He seriously considered the public process comments and was motivated to resolve the issues. Public values were to be taken into account including Lizard Creek protection, wildlife habitat, public recreation, connectivity between City of Fernie and the ski resort. The amended design included, among other things, an emergency egress, that has been required for years, and enhanced fire protection.
He believes that he has resolved the technical aspects of all major issues that arose in the context of the initial application, but there is still the overarching debate of growth versus no growth and the environmental argument relating to habitat and preservation of wildlife impact.
Fernie has had a few developers who didn’t keep their promises, however what Reto has accomplished with the Fernie RV Resort and Koocanusa Village does prove he is a proven quantity with a strong connection to the town. “I’m good at what I do, I think as a baker or shoemaker, do I want to provide something that isn’t quality? No, I want to create products in the market place that hasn’t been available. And I’d like to do it with consensus building, civility, elegant compromise and without acrimony. I love solutions!” It does take someone like Reto taking chances to make something that’s worthwhile.
This project won’t be providing affordable housing but what it does provide is a product in the market place that has been in demand for some time but hasn’t been available. The new design has wildlife corridors, and park land preserved as a natural forest. Lizard Creek is to be protected and for the first time, and there will be a emergency access from Fernie Alpine Resort.
Some people are promoting the idea that this development will become an environmental problem. BC’s leading environmental professionals believe otherwise. Over half of the property is being transferred to a land conservancy to be preserved. Both the Fernie Trails Alliance and the Fernie Nordic Society will be involved with the conservancy to access the land for trail building, maintenance and the future of the Galloway Lands.
Ironically, the lands existing zoning (RR-8) already allows for subdivision without rezoning. This proposed new community will eliminate any potential for future tree harvesting as the forest provides the value for a conservation development.
Lizard Creek will also be protected by a 75-metre setback, exceeding all BC and RDEK requirements. There will be a no build zone of any kind for Lizard Creek within the setback in perpetuity.
For the past 15 years, there has been a safety and emergency concern regarding there not being a secondary access road to the ski hill. This will finally be accomplished. The FAR community association has requested that there be gates at both ends of the new road to minimize traffic taking a shortcut to the ski hill. There is also concern that this development will be 264 lots – not true. There will only be 90 lots. Letters have been sent to the RDEK office from RCR supporting this development and also confirming that water, sewer and fire will be provided.
Fernie has seen a few developers who didn’t keep their promises. Reto is a local developer, this is his home, and his other projects prove he can be trusted to keep his word.
I recall Fernie when it was a sleepy quiet mining town. I loved it then and I love it now with all the available amenities. This developer has addressed all concerns brought up by those who believe that it will harm wildlife and eliminate recreation. Still, they have incited people who obviously aren’t aware of the changes in the second application. This development will allow use of private land to those who want it for recreational purposes. It is my opinion that the owner should have some autonomy over their property and that the public should appreciate the access.
I know that many of the trails currently in use are on private land and that is a credit to the owner who has allowed this. This is really the core of the stand against this development. However, Reto Barrington has made provision that over 50% of this land will be conserved and available for public recreation and 70% of the total will not be available for future development.
I support this development. I believe it will add more recreational opportunities, needed tax revenue for Area A and provide more life and support to all business in Fernie. I’m not sure what else can be done to appease those that are in opposition.
By Mary Giuliano
Mary arrived in Fernie in May of 1953 and has lived here ever since, by choice, because she loves the Elk Valley and everything it stands for. Read more from Mary here.