School Road project clears third reading

Gibsons council has voted in favour of moving ahead with zoning and Official Community Plan amendments that would allow a three-storey, 40-unit supportive housing facility on the two lots fronting 749 School Rd., the former RCMP building.

Tuesday’s vote to give the necessary bylaw amendments third reading followed an Oct. 17 public hearing, where 247 people made submissions in writing and 61 spoke.

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According to the Town, 72 per cent of those written and oral submissions were in support of the proposal and 28 per cent were opposed.

The Town also received a 438-signature petition asking for the project to be relocated to “a more appropriate, larger property, in an area away from schools.”

Successive councils have expressed interest in acquiring the land for some sort of community use ever since the RCMP moved to a new policing facility on Sunnycrest Road.

The current proposal involves the federal government transferring the property to the Town for one dollar so it can be leased to BC Housing, which has offered $14 million in capital funding and $1 million in annual operating funding for the supportive housing project.

The vote was a four-one split, with Coun. Aleria Ladwig the only dissenting voice.

Ladwig spoke last and read from a written statement. “If I thought that the School Road site was the only location in Gibsons for a supportive housing project, this would be a very different conversation for me, but I honestly don’t think it is. I just think we haven’t looked anywhere else.”

She went on to claim that BC Housing’s $14-million capital funding commitment is $6 million more than the expected cost of the building.

“BC Housing knows exactly how much these facilities cost to build, so I ask council why did they allocate an additional $6 million towards the Gibsons supportive housing project if it wasn’t for land?” Ladwig said. “And why would a government so dedicated to solving homelessness allocate $14 million toward the project, only to let the success of that project hinge on the use of a free lot valued only at roughly $600,000? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve never seen a government operate that way.”

Ladwig said BC Housing had considered at least one alternate site, the Irwin Motel property on Gibsons Way, which is currently on the market for $3.5 million, and that a vacant lot at Pratt Road and Highway 101 that recently sold for around $2 million was “a missed opportunity.”

“This is the type of opportunity we could still look for … while saving the School Road site for other people in our community that wouldn’t qualify for a low barrier supportive housing project – like people with children for example,” she said.

Ladwig argued that the Town is “passing up a $6-million opportunity from the province for a $600,000 opportunity from the feds, just to settle on a small lot with no outdoor amenity space for the residents living on site, in an area that a lot of people in our community, whether justified or not, are uncomfortable with… I think we could do better for our community.”

In an email response to Ladwig’s comments, a BC Housing official told Coast Reporter the $14 million “is an estimate based on the maximum amount per unit” under its supportive housing program. The agency also said the School Road location meets its criteria for lot size, proximity to services and transit as well as “compatible land use policies.”

BC Housing said the Irwin Motel site was determined to be unsuitable “due to the high asking price and the fact that a new project would have displaced the current residents.”

Mayor Bill Beamish, who also read his comments from a prepared text, said he had “many silent arguments with myself” before arriving “at a decision that is, I believe, for the future of our community, in full recognition that if we do it right we may avoid many of the problems faced by other communities.”

Beamish also said his support comes with expectations of what BC Housing should do as the project moves forward.

“I will ask that BC Housing immediately establish the community advisory committee and that this committee work with all residents, council, the RCMP, the schools and others to clearly identify and take steps to mitigate the concerns that we have heard,” he said, adding that the Town will continue to work with BC Housing to ensure that “real or potential impacts” of the project on the quality of life for the neighbours are negligible.

Beamish also said he wants BC Housing to work with the Town on a communications plan that will include keeping residents informed of “issues and solutions as they are addressed.”

The debate was briefly delayed when the phone line being used to link up with Coun. Annemarie De Andrade, who was out of town, went dead. When contact was re-established, De Andrade said, “In my view the clock is ticking and I fear that postponing this project for a location agreed by all residents may result in losing the opportunity to build supportive housing in our community… We are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and a homelessness crisis and it would be irresponsible for a government not to address this crisis.”

Councillors Stafford Lumley and David Croal also spoke about the need to address the crisis.

“They’ve already identified 35 people that are right here that are homeless and waiting for us to make a decision,” Lumley said. “It’s time that we show some leadership and make a decision for the community as a whole.”

“We’ve had deaths in the community because people are homeless,” said Croal. “It’s a situation that’s not improving and 40 units at this point perhaps is but a Band-Aid on a situation that’s growing worse. Personally I don’t think we can afford not to support this.”

Before the zoning amendment comes back to council for a vote on final adoption it requires a sign-off from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. It’s not known how long that will take.

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