When a visitor pulls into his long driveway, Charles Fipke steps onto his porch, large food-storage container in hand. He reaches in and tosses fistfuls of birdseed off the stoop and around the rental car. “There’s a quail’s nest nearby,” Fipke explains. He steps inside, setting down the birdseed bin, not minding that some spills on his rug and tile floor. He invites his guest inside his 6,250-sq.-foot Kelowna, B.C., abode.
Picture windows showcase his outdoor pool, the beach and Okanagan Lake—Fipke calls this his “front yard,” and complains about beach-walkers occasionally trespassing on the area he’s roped off as his. Within minutes of plunking down on his white leather sofa to chat, he’s up toward the window to show off his two favourite parts of lakefront living. There’s the towering willow that convinced him to buy this property on Capozzi Road. Its falling leaves require a pool cleaner to come several times a week, but it’s worth it. The winged wildlife is his other love. No birds are out on this chilly, bleak-sky day, but there are photos of plenty in albums stacked on his window ledge. His professional-grade long lenses have captured images of great blue herons, swans, cedar waxwings, nesting ospreys and more near his private boat dock.
In a fast-growing city full of affluent retirees and businessfolk from Alberta and the Lower Mainland seeking sun, golf and wine, Fipke is in a class of his own. He’s the geologist who discovered diamonds in Canada’s North and amassed a mining fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He believed he’d found his treed and avian paradise when he paid $6.3 million for the property, among a tidy clutch of lakefront family homes in Kelowna’s Mission Creek district, in 2006. But now it’s a lonely place to own a standalone house. Across the street, five- and six-storey condo buildings stand on land once occupied by single-family homes. The house next door and four adjacent ones have been razed to make way for Aqua Waterfront Village: 344 luxury condos and townhouses, including a 13-storey tower metres from his property line. In a few years, his house will likely be the last among a sea of lake-view condos and vacation rentals.
The rock hunter who beat the world to where diamonds slept in the Arctic has found himself, without initially realizing it, smack in the middle of the area his city had long pegged as its new tourist district. Most of Kelowna’s lakeshore is lined with private houses much like Fipke’s. He just happens to live on a slab of waterfront that planners and developers want to carve up for the countless newcomers yearning for a small slice of one of the country’s premier summer destinations.
Many people in his predicament would’ve sold out and moved by now—especially those with the means to buy nice houses (or a few lots) anywhere else. Not this 75-year-old. Fipke has launched a lawsuit against Aqua’s developer and the City of Kelowna, mounting technical objections in hopes of quashing permits for the massive project. The result is one of Canada’s most unique and intractable not-in-my-backyard battles in recent memory: a lone centimillionaire pitted against one of the region’s most powerful condo builders and a city hall that has embraced rapid growth; a man who got rich opening up the earth to extract its goodies and now wants to safeguard his neighbourhood’s wildlife.
READ: The next trend in luxury Canadian real estate? Multi-level ‘iceberg’ basements.
“It’s like the unstoppable force meets the immovable object,” remarks Al Janusas, a Kelowna resident and development watcher. “I can’t say I blame him. When he moved in there, it was a quiet little enclave. And it’s not anymore. But that’s the story of Kelowna, and especially that area.”
It’s unclear what a legend of the diamond-mining world is supposed to look like, but this one is rather unassuming. Short but sturdily built—years ago, some co-workers nicknamed him Stumpy—Fipke is known to bicycle in good weather to his mineral research lab. His demeanour is casual and self-effacing, verging on uncertain, with a halting speech pattern that has him ending almost every sentence with a “hey?” Chuck (nobody calls him Charles) is bald but for an unexpected patch of short, grey-black hair on the back of his head. In lieu of a computer or his own email address, his kitchen table is strewn with a mess of documents about his Aqua lawsuit, mixed among notes on precious metal samples. Photo albums of birds spotted in his “front yard” and on travels abroad are stacked next to a bulge of binders with info about thoroughbred stallions, alphabetized by horse name. More than a hobby, racing and breeding horses has become his other multi-million-dollar venture. And, he admits, an addiction. He owns a farm in Kentucky and has enjoyed success at big races: second place at the 2013 Kentucky Derby, first at the 2008 Queen’s Plate.
Fipke was passionate about wildlife before he was shiny rocks. Growing up on Edmonton’s outskirts in the 1950s, he began breeding and selling pigeons and doves, earning his own money while classmates were on allowances. His dad moved the family to the Okanagan in Chuck’s teens.
As he was finishing high school, Fipke dreamed of majoring in ornithology, the study of birds. But his father urged him to pursue a field that would make money, and he enrolled in geology at the University of British Columbia. Degree in hand, he took on a series of mining contracts in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and Africa—sometimes with his wife Marlene, whom he met during university, and their son Mark in tow. His adventures in the 1970s, chronicled in a later biography, sound like rejected bits from Indiana Jones screenplays: wading through crocodile-infested waters for a copper sample; fleeing charging rhinos; bartering away his clothes to evade hostile locals; surviving cerebral malaria and a helicopter crash.
In his early 30s, Fipke realized he could work for himself and set his own destiny. He returned to Kelowna and founded C.F. Mineral Research and Dia Met Minerals, and devised methods of finding diamonds in the Northwest Territories. He set up a clapboard shack in the wilderness, and in September 1991, Fipke and his partner Stewart Blusson found a core sample containing 81 diamonds at a site 300 km north of Yellowknife. The Canadian diamond age had begun, with Fipke and Dia Met at the forefront. The Ekati Diamond Mine opened in 1998, pushing its Kelowna-based founder’s personal wealth as high as $842 million, according to Canadian Business magazine. By that time, however, key figures in Fipke’s orbit had exited, by lawsuit or falling-out: diamond-hunting partner Blusson; brother and Dia Met executive Wayne; eldest son and work-camp pal Mark; and Marlene, who’d discovered he’d had a son—his sixth child—with a younger woman. “In order to do something like [build a successful company] you have to be a hundred per cent committed—something gives, hey?” the geologist wistfully told the Edmonton Journal in 1997. “Every person without exception that was close to me has turned on me—everyone. Everyone.”
MORE: Want to get in on Canadian real estate? Welcome to the down-payment hustle.
His wife’s divorce settlement in 2000 was Fipke’s $120-million stake in Dia Met, and remains one of Canada’s largest post-marriage agreements. Fipke stepped back from mine operations but continued hunting internationally for gems and precious metals. And he decamped to the sort of condo he now dreads: a 16th-floor penthouse in downtown Kelowna. Eventually, as his youngest son Tayler grew up, Fipke decided a penthouse wouldn’t do. He found that willow tree on Capozzi, and moved into a quiet house on what was then a quiet little street.
Fipke’s neighbourhood, five kilometres south of downtown Kelowna, was once the quiet refuge of the area’s pioneers. Harold Truswell, the region’s first Ford dealership owner and namesake of adjacent Truswell Road, first settled where Mission Creek empties into Okanagan Lake in 1941. Later came the Capozzi family, on what is now Fipke’s lot: they founded Calona, the original Okanagan Valley winery. Next door to the Capozzis was J.W. Hughes, the first planter of commercial grapes in the region. Over time, the lakefront lots in what was then called Okanagan Mission filled up, bracketed by the relocated and classy Hotel Eldorado and the more affordable Walnut Grove Motel. By the time Fipke bought in 2006, the first few houses had been bulldozed for resort-style villas: the 54-unit Mission Shores, built by a company that would eventually rebrand as Mission Group. But that development didn’t much bother Fipke. It was at the end of the block. He was enamoured by the birds, trees and water.
By this point, Kelowna, and the Okanagan Valley around it, was established as the closest thing Canada has to a sun belt. Reliably warm weather, boating, golf and wine have made the region one of Canada’s fastest-growing for several decades, and a magnet particularly for retirees. More than two million summer tourists per year come to play, among them a cadre of off-season NHL stars. Provincial statistics show the city grew by 28,000 people (23 per cent) in the last decade, edging close to a total of 150,000 (having only hit six digits in 2001). It expects to gain another 45,000 by 2040, all of which drives demand for real-estate developers and their construction cranes to keep pace with.
In the late 1990s, Kelowna city council realized they couldn’t pack every condo into the city core and declared the area around Capozzi Road a tourism and commercial district in its development plans. That made it much easier to rezone single-family lots and obtain permits to convert lakeside bungalows into condo blocks. More recently, the rules have evolved to make this neighbourhood Kelowna’s most amenable to Airbnb-style short-term rentals.
Over the years after Fipke moved in, the houses across the street from him were bulldozed, becoming Water’s Edge condos and Essence Condominiums. A bit more traffic, a bit less tranquility. Meanwhile, the development of the massive Aqua project took its first steps in 2007. A real estate agent approached the five homeowners north of Fipke, saying a developer wanted the land. “They gave us a good offer, which we liked. We all agreed to sell,” recalls Sue Randhawa, who lived two doors down from Fipke for 13 years but hardly knew him.
RELATED: Young, working Canadians face a dilemma: eat, or pay the bills?
The residents trickled away—Randhawa stayed right until 2019—leaving Fipke unprepared for the big shift to come. Mission Group, which had become a condo powerhouse in Kelowna, spent years planning, then paused a while after the 2008 market crash before re-emerging with Aqua in 2016. It featured three towers, a multi-storey boat parkade, a public beach, a rooftop pool and a two-storey gym. Company CEO Jonathan Friesen has likened it to the terraced, marina-facing modern hotels of Monte Carlo; a promo video says Aqua sits in Kelowna’s “sought-after resort district.” Fipke would complain that the city wanted to turn that area into Hawaii’s resort-mad Waikiki, and he’s more or less correct, judging by publicly available plans the geologist didn’t know about when he staked this claim.
The beloved willow tree that stretches far over Fipke’s house would be itself dwarfed, in time, by the 42-metre, 13-storey condo tower planned right next to it. At the edge of his property, a public walkway would take beachgoers to the lake. The path would be lined by three-level townhouses, also looming above the geologist’s home.
Before Fipke hired lawyers to fight the project, he tried persuasion. When Aqua went to city council for formal rezoning in 2017, Kelowna’s wealthiest man was among several area residents who spoke at the public hearing, objecting to the traffic and noise the development would bring, and to its sheer scale. Fipke lives mostly out of the local spotlight, except for his philanthropy: $6 million for a UBC Okanagan research building in his name; donations for a trauma room at Kelowna General Hospital; and a fundraiser at his home for animal protection charity WildAid Canada starring actor Bo Derek, a regular travel companion of Fipke’s whom he considers a close friend. So his appearance at council turned heads: “That was actually one for the books,” recalls Councillor Ryan Donn.
Any resident, centimillionaire or otherwise, gets five minutes to speak at a Kelowna council hearing. Fipke started his with a slide show: belted kingfisher, trumpeter swan, waxwing and other birds he’s photographed in his yard. “Right next to me there’s going to be another 1,200 people and all that wildlife is going to go, and I’m not going to have this nice place to come home anymore,” he said. He tried to stress his local bona fides: “I can assure you that I’ve done a heck of a lot more for the community than Mission Group has since 2001, since they’ve been here.” (The developer’s charitable activities include support for Kelowna’s homeless shelter, the YMCA and a youth sport group).
Council members seemed unmoved. After Fipke’s five minutes, they asked him whether he’d attended Mission Group’s open houses on the project (yes, once, but he’s very busy); and whether he’d accept any development next door (did not answer directly answer). Mayor Colin Basran asked if Fipke knew the official community plan had long envisioned his block as part of a tourist district. “I didn’t know that at all,” Fipke admitted. Council voted to grant Mission Group the rezoning.
When the project came back in 2018 for another hearing on a development permit, Fipke was back, too. “I really don’t think anything I’m going to say is going to change the council’s mind,” he said, before launching into complaints about traffic, beach-walkers and flood risk: “Because I’ve been treated so poorly by the council, hey, I’ll never sell my place.” There were no questions.
The discernible frustration in Fipke’s voice during that appearance may have had something to do with a letter of support for the project a Mission Group official had read out earlier in the hearing. It was penned by Mark Fipke, the geologist’s eldest son, who lives six kilometres south of the house on Capozzi Road. In it, Mark praised the “well thought-out” development, and dismissed worries about the towers’ height and traffic. “It is also a beautiful design which enhances the Mission Creek neighbourhood,” the letter added. The father rebutted to council: “I’m not my son.” In November, Chuck Fipke told Maclean’s he’d forgotten about that incident, but adds that, since the marital breakup, Mark has tended to side with his mother. (Mark Fipke did not respond to a request for comment.)
Once again, in 2018, council voted to approve the project. Then, in a near-unanimous vote last June, it approved a slightly tweaked version—with still more condos. Aqua’s 344 new dwellings would be part of a massive development spree green-lit for that area: 1,100 more units are slated for the former site of a former trailer park less than a half-kilometre north of Fipke, and hundreds more at major condo projects a few blocks north of that. “There’s extremely large demand for all that stuff,” says Nate Cassie, a real estate agent. Aqua’s first tower sold out almost instantaneously, with more than 1,200 requests for its 154 homes.
All of this has fed criticism that council is too amenable to developers—a view Mission Group CEO Friesen unintentionally reinforced with some unguarded comments last spring. Speaking to a Vancouver real estate podcast, he ticked off reasons for Kelowna’s real estate boom: “All of the components were already there: a progressive city council that was developer-friendly, a location that I think is so beautiful . . . and in terms of quality of life, I think that Kelowna has it in ways that few other places do.”
READ: No water in winter. No septic field. For $489,000 the ‘Tom Selleck house’ can be yours.
Asked what Friesen meant by “developer-friendly,” a company spokeswoman told Maclean’s in an email that he was referring to the “welcoming of property development that fosters strong communities, neighbourhoods and public amenities.”
Fipke, living next door to a row of razed lots hosting motorboats as they await construction of the boat parkade, has had enough. “I’m not the type—I don’t like, you know, being pushed out of my own house and home,” he says.
At times in Fipke’s conversations with Maclean’s, this is a fight for his “front yard” tranquility. Other times, he’s the environmentalist, worried about wildlife and the lake ecosystem. “I understand that Kelowna needs development. A lot of people want to live here,” he reasons. “The only thing I’m against, hey, is ruining the waterfront.”
His legal bid to kill Aqua’s permits is rooted in neither of those causes. Rather, it is based on a density calculation—namely, that Mission Group included a large swath of land that is underwater to obtain the right to build its project at more than 400,000 square feet, at a permittable density rate of 1.5 square feet of floor space per one square foot of bare land. Fipke’s petition, filed in B.C. Supreme Court in July, argues that the land swallowed by Okanagan Lake, which has reverted to the Crown, shouldn’t figure in the calculation of the project’s maximum density. The city and Mission Group’s subsidiary, Aqua Resort Ltd., counter in their filings that the city had granted well-documented assurances that land does count toward Aqua’s lot size because it was submerged during one major flood in the late 1940s; unlike shoreline lost to gradual erosion, they say, land swallowed in a single event like that isn’t excluded from such calculations. (The city’s court filings even note that the mayor and a planning official discussed this during a hearing that Fipke attended.) Fipke has hired his own geotechnical experts to counter the lake-flood theory.
Representatives of the city and Mission Group declined to be interviewed about the lawsuit, though the firm’s executive vice-president says, in a statement, “Mission Group has completed all necessary due diligence on Aqua Waterfront Village and the project has been approved by the appropriate regulatory bodies in order to move forward.” In legal filings, the developer notes that Fipke is bringing forth his lawsuit years after the initial permit he’d opposed was granted, and this late fight is “extremely prejudicial” to the company. “If the development and development variance permits are quashed, Mission Group will be at risk of losing its sales contracts, and there is a strong likelihood that the development would be no longer feasible with a reduced FAR [floor area ratio] density, resulting in multi-million dollar losses,” vice-president of development Lisa Lock says in an affidavit.
A hearing was scheduled for mid–February. It’s unclear what Fipke’s chances are in this rare and highly technical legal bid, but Kelowna’s exuberant real estate market seems to be betting against him. The first Aqua tower’s largest penthouse sold on a $3.25-million listing in November, months after the project hit the courts. Mission Group intends to market the project’s second tower in the spring.
Fipke acknowledges that condos could rise next door to him even if he wins his lawsuit. “All that’ll happen is they’ll rezone it and they’ll have to redo their plans and they’ll be probably shorter, up to six or eight storeys,” he says. He insists he’ll stay no matter what.
For now, his block includes 149 condos or villas and four standalone homes. But in a few years, Fipke’s house may be the only single-family dwelling in his vicinity. The two aging homeowners directly south of him sold to a local developer about four years ago, aware where the neighbourhood was heading. “Once they went in and bought up the properties on the other side of Chuck, it was just destined,” says former neighbour Maryanne Bishop. Vancouver-based Minglian Group now owns the lots, and plans 15 storeys of luxury condominiums. The old Walnut Grove Motel site is also destined to become condos and vacation rentals; it was listed last fall for $12 million.
That leaves Fipke and a house owned by the family of Bud Truswell, the son of the pioneering Ford dealer. Bud has long since decamped to Washington state to run a mining venture of his own but he has returned to Kelowna often in the summer, and has resisted developers’ offers to buy the property. He says that within a couple years he’ll unload the place—to the city, which has long tabbed his lot as a park. Fipke’s refusal to move on puzzles Truswell. “I don’t know why he’s staying there. He can afford to buy half of Okanagan Mission out, go somewhere and just be private if he wanted to be,” Truswell says. “I can’t see why he wants to fight it.”
Fipke had to be dogged to thrive in mining. He sold his last stake in the N.W.T. diamond business years ago. His companies now explore for gold in Quebec claims and silver and zinc in the Yukon, while his thoroughbreds chase glory around the world. A man who moils for diamonds, and succeeds, is a man with the determination and money required to simultaneously take on city hall and a major developer—then appeal to higher courts, if necessary. “Yeah. I won’t give up, hey?” he says. “You don’t find mines by giving up.”
This article appears in print in the March 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Kelowna showdown.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.