A real estate gold rush, based on Alberta money, has hit the Shuswap Lake area -- and not everybody in the land of houseboats is happy.
Foes of condominium towers looming over the languid waters of the Shuswap are talking about their paradise turning into another Whistler or Las Vegas or Miami Beach.
Supporters say tourism and recreational property developments are the linchpin of the region's economic future: Condos mean money and jobs.
The debate is perhaps most fierce in the small town of Sicamous where developers want to build shoreline condominium projects.
"It's just ludicrous to build condo towers on this pristine shoreline," said Frank McNabb, who lives outside of Sicamous along Mara Lake, part of the Shuswap Lake water system.
McNabb and many of his neighbours are upset at a proposal by Waterway Houseboats to build 10-storey condo towers with 225 units, plus 125 townhouses and a marina with docks to accommodate about 350 motorboats and 100 houseboats.
Just a few kilometres away, a Calgary-based developer, Sable Resorts, is planning to build another large condo development. McNabb said these two condo projects and others would add about 1,000 boat slips and 100 house boats to Mara Lake. "And this little lake won't take it."
He added: "I'm an old guy, it won't affect me too much. But they don't need to ruin this area for our kids who will be coming here 20 years down the road."
Sicamous Mayor Lorraine March believes there is no option but to accept the condo tower projects. "We need tourism and this is an area of tourism."
But March acknowledges not everybody shares her view. "We've been a sleepy little Sicamous for a long time and it's been a sort of paradise. But we've been discovered and the changes we are talking about are very large for our 3,000 residents and change is difficult to accept."
She said most of the condos will be snapped up by Albertans. "Vancouver hasn't even discovered us yet," she said. "Alberta has always been our market."
March said local residents have been able to enjoy their single-family homes on the shoreline for more than 50 years. "And now that same piece of property is going to be home to 200-300 people in condos."
More than 200 people turned out this week for a public hearing into a request by Waterway for building variances so that it could proceed with the construction of the marina portion of its BeachBay Village project.
Sicamous council voted 3-2 against giving Waterway the variances, saying that the developer should produce a comprehensive plan if it wants to proceed. Waterways has stopped construction of its floating services building for the time being.
March, who voted against giving Waterway the variances, said the scale of the project is so unprecedented for her community that a comprehensive plan is required.
She said the project's marina dock was seven times what is allowed in Sicamous's zoning rules. The size of the floating services building would be five times the size of what is currently permitted. "Once a comprehensive plan is put into place, it's going to be an awesome addition to our community."
Officials for Waterway were unavailable for comment Friday.
Environmental activists in the region fear uncontrolled condo development along the Shuswap Lake system.
"It's turning into Miami Beach," said Jim Cooperman of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society. "It's going to be just one condo development after another. And every condo owner is going to have a boat slip which is going to add hundreds and hundreds of boats to an already crowded lake system."
Calgary engineer Bob Eadie has been coming to the Sicamous area for decades and plans to retire to the home he owns along Mara Lake. He said he isn't opposed to condo projects but "we feel the developments of the last five years have been excessive and really seem to lack a high degree of planning."
Eadie said he belongs to a group called Friends of Mara Lake, which is concerned about the Waterway condo project.
"We don't want to turn the pages back to the '50s and '60s when all you had on the lake were canoes.
"But with the condo proposals out there now the lake will be totally saturated. Already you get whitecaps on the lake in July and August when there is no wind. In other words, the waves are from the boat traffic. And the developers are proposing to add another 1,000 boats -- it's just crazy."
The Shuswap Lake area has changed significantly over the past three years, said Scott Beeching, a planner for the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District.
"It's gone from a sleepy, little community where people go to their cabin or camp to condo developers showing up and trying to get as much as they can on a small piece of property," he said. "We're seeing a lot more development than this area's used to. Unfortunately, we don't have building permits out here so it's hard to say just how many."
He estimated at least 12 new resort properties are currently under development in the area. The boom began three years ago and isn't going away, he said: "It's building every day."
With the surge in interest, the area faces many challenges, particularly related to the lake's water quality and effluent, he said. A moratorium on sewage discharge into Shuswap Lake is set to end in November, he said, but they've applied for a one-year extension.
Beeching said the district is working on community and waste management plans for both North and South Shuswap to determine what type of growth the lake can withstand.
Local residents are also concerned with beach access, he said. "There are dedicated public accesses to the beach and we're getting applications to close those," he said. "[Developers] buy a property and they don't want people on their beach -- what they feel is their beach."
Lisa Shirley-Nobbs, owner of Shirley Real Estate in Salmon Arm, said there aren't enough properties in the town to keep up with demand. "We've been discovered," she said.
The average cost of a home went from about $175,000 in 2004 to more than $315,000 this year, she said. Building lots go for about $120,000, up from $75,000 last year.
"It's still reasonable compared to the Lower Mainland."
Lakeshore homes are hard to find and go for around $1 million, Shirley-Nobbs said; lakeshore cottages start at about $675,000. The business sector is changing too, she said, adding that Superstore and Wal-Mart are slated to open in Salmon Arm soon.
She credits the area's location, half way between Vancouver and Calgary -- and its natural setting.
"People want to move to Shuswap for a lifestyle change," she said. "We've had a heck of a time keeping up to demand. The lots -- when they're developed -- are being sold quite quickly."
Sicamous is the busiest development area for recreation use, she said. More than half of buyers come from Alberta, said Ken Larson, owner of Mabel Lake Resort and Airpark, a remote and scenic vacation site about 35 kilometres east of Enderby.
Over the past three years prices at his resort have doubled, he said -- up to $200,000 for an empty lot. "There's no signs of slowing down," he said.
There isn't enough recreational lake property to keep up with demand, said developer Rudy Nielsen, whose company Landcor Data Corporation tracks real estate sales.
The demand for recreational properties has reached an all-time high, he said. "I've never seen higher prices in my 40 years as a recreational developer."
The numbers tell it all: Last year 966 waterfront properties sold in the Shuswap area, up from 338 five years ago. With demand, the price climbs too, up from $252,361 in 2001 to an average of $723,872 last year.