A multimillion-dollar affordable rental housing project in Fernie will go ahead despite community opposition at the 11th hour.
On Monday night, council approved the Official Community Plan (OCP) and zoning amendments necessary for the Fernie Family Housing Society’s (FFHS) North End Court project to proceed.
The 49-unit development consists of 35 apartments and 14 townhomes, and is planned for a 5404.2 square metre parcel of land next to Tom Uphill Manor and École Isabella Dicken Elementary School (EIDES).
The FFHS has received $6 million in funding from BC Housing and Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) for the project, which aims to provide mixed affordable housing for families, singles, seniors, and people with disabilities.
Earlier Monday, a public hearing for the zoning and OCP amendments was held at the Fernie Senior Citizens Drop-In Centre.
About 60 people attended, as well as City staff, with Mayor Ange Qualizza commenting it was the biggest turn out she’d seen at a public hearing.
The City received 26 submissions on the proposed amendments, including 17 letters of support and nine letters in opposition.
Concerns raised included the height of buildings, increased traffic in a school zone and the development’s impact on property values.
These were addressed by Manager of Planning Patrick Sorfleet during his presentation to council at the public hearing.
Sorfleet said a transportation impact assessment commissioned by FFHS found the 62 parking spaces allocated in the project design were sufficient, while the density of buildings was relative.
The main concern raised at the public hearing was the project’s potential to hinder an expansion of EIDES. A Facebook page called “Fernie Save Our School Site” was set up prior to the hearing and attracted dozens of likes before being deleted by Tuesday.
Sorfleet emphasized that the land is privately owned and although the Southeast Kootenay School District (SD5) could explore expropriation under the School Act, there had been no proposal to do so.
Gwyn Symmons, project manager and principal of consulting company CitySpaces, added that communication with SD5 had been difficult.
“I realize there’s anxiety about the school site but there’s been no representation from the school district,” he later said.
Symmons reiterated that North End Court is an affordable housing project for the local community and represented a major investment by the Province and CBT – funding that would be lost if the development was unsuccessful.
After Sorfleet and Symmons’ presentations, the hearing was opened to the floor. Each person was given three minutes to share their views on the project and proposed amendments.
Senior Citizens Club of Fernie and District Administrator Courtney Baker was the first to take the lectern and stated she was very much in favour of the project, which she believes will provide safe and stable housing for local seniors and people with disabilities.
Many other speakers voiced their support while raising concerns about the location and EIDES’ ability to expand. Another resident countered: “I think this is an excellent build and site, and I think it’s needed”.
FFHS President Gayle Vallance explained the Society had looked at other suggested sites, however, contamination from previous industrial use meant reclamation would be costly and unfeasible for a not-for-profit organization.
For Fernie resident Janice Brulotte, the location is ideal. She said she was excited to learn about North End Court because it offered easy access to downtown for her daughter Grace, who is confined to a wheelchair.
“I really hope this works out because for us, this would be the perfect location and we love it,” she said.
SD5 was not present at the public hearing. This was evident when former teacher Kate Noakes took the lectern and asked anyone from the school district to come forward.
She put the onus back on SD5 and the Province, saying they have known for years about overcrowding at EIDES and could have planned better.
Noakes said it was not easy to attract teachers and other workers to Fernie because of the lack of affordable housing.
“I’m really disappointed with them (SD5) and I really don’t want to see Fernie Family Housing lose the opportunity that it has because the school district didn’t get its rear in gear,” she said.
Noakes urged people to “… get to the school board meetings, fight for the right stuff, but don’t fight against Fernie Family Housing for what the school district’s shortcomings might be” and was met with applause.
There was little discussion when the matter came before council later that night. They supported staff’s recommendation to approve the OCP and zoning amendments.
There are several hurdles FFHS and CityScapes still have to clear, including permits and tendering, before construction can start this summer.
They anticipate welcoming their first tenants by early 2021.