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Employee housing in Canmore's light industrial areas to receive clarity

“The solution is to have a really solid housing strategy that probably uses a local agency or authority that builds it in partnership with industry. That’s the way forward.”

CANMORE – The polarizing topic of whether to permit employee housing in Canmore’s light industrial area will return to council chambers.

As housing has become the single greatest issue not only in the Bow Valley – but across the country – the discussion of how best to move forward has continued to be at the crux of the issue.

In Canmore’s case, the decision before council Sept. 5 is how to provide clarity in the Town’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and land use bylaw to eliminate any confusion for potential future development applications.

The discussion has dragged on – including two postponements by council – and led to the topic being decided upon by council-appointed Canmore Planning Commission (CPC) and Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB), with much-needed council direction expected.

“It’s about clarity one way or the other. If council wants to allow for employee housing in the industrial area and to bring back updates to the land use bylaw, it’s good for industry to know what conditions it could or could not allow,” said Eleanor Miclette, the Town’s manager of economic development.

“Housing in industrial limits the industrial use that can take place. If council goes that direction, then that’s the direction we get clarity on and move forward with. … It’s good there will be clarity because I think the frustrating part for industry is there isn’t clarity. One way or another, we’re going to get that.”

While CPC ruled on the first employee housing in light industrial in May 2022, the release of the Town’s long-awaited retail gap analysis and light industrial and commercial land review study is meant to aid in council’s decision. The third-party report recommends council stop the trend of employee housing in light industrial areas to maintain it for commercial and industrial use.

The retail gap study looks at the retail profile in the community, consumer demands, gaps and opportunities. The commercial and industrial land supply and demand inventory analyzed the approach for industrial and commercial lands.

“We need to create opportunity for people who want to start or grow a business and that means protecting that land,” Miclette said. “It’s why we protect our residential land because we want those usages to remain for housing and I think the community uproar would be high if a business were to come, set up in a residential area and we’d not be able to build residential.”

Miclette noted the lack of commercial and industrial-related space is critically low in the community. She said Canmore’s industrial vacancy is below one per cent and she's heard from some downtown businesses that are facing 10-15 per cent rent increases.

Miclette said she frequently hears from businesses who want to expand but are unable due to available space. With the majority of businesses at a micro level of five or fewer employees, or small, which is classified at 99 or fewer staff, she said it’s important to utilize all space as best as possible.

“The consultant said there’s a need to protect the little we have because new businesses can’t find a place at one per cent. There are some businesses waiting three or four years for spaces to grow into. That’s a long time to wait when you have a demand for your product.”

Despite the study recommending the need to maintain the second floor light industrial space, many businesses have repeatedly said the space is rarely, if ever, used for anything but storage and that employee housing addresses the desperate need for housing and short staffing.

Ian O’Donnell, the executive director of Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA), said he’s heard a variety of opinions from the organization’s membership.

However, the “vast majority” have been to allow the private sector to have a broad offering of options when it comes to providing market and non-market housing, including staff and employee housing.

“We have many business owners in the community wanting to help solve not only their own problem with accommodation, but potentially their neighbouring businesses as well,” he said.

BOWDA held a forum Tuesday evening (Aug. 29) that had community members and businesses speak of the need for increasing housing in the community.

O’Donnell noted the Town has reminded the organization there is a trade-off for potentially using housing on the second floor of light industrial space, but he said it’s key to have options in decision-making.

“What I think is important here is flexibility,” he said. “Uses change, demands change, needs change and policy should be adaptive and reflective and responsive to that.”

Though the decision at the council level has been drawn out, development applications haven’t with CPC and SDAB deciding on individual applications.

CPC approved 12 employee housing units in May 2022 at 121 Bow Meadows Cres. and a subsequent July 2023 hearing led to an increase to 15 units.

Two one-bedroom units at 127 Bow Meadows Cres. was approved by SDAB last February. A well-attended May SDAB hearing had more than 30 people in attendance and 16 businesses and individuals speak in support of employee housing at 100 Alpine Meadows. SDAB ruled against Basecamp Resorts proposal for 12 second floor employee housing units to add 34 bedrooms.

“If we didn’t have employee housing in our operating business, frankly, we’d be dead in the water,” said Sky McLean, the owner of Basecamp Resorts and the applicant on the property in a May interview with the Outlook. “There would be no business. We wouldn’t be able to function because if people don’t have housing they can’t work. It’s not feasible for people right now in Canmore … There is no other option.”

O’Donnell said clarity is critical since going the CPC and SDAB route can be a waste of time, resources and money for both private applicants and Town staff.

“If we’re not able to do one thing, at least clarity will allow us to go and pursue something else that may assist-whether it’s housing-related or not,” he said. “This has been dragging on for some time and I think right now, the key is to have Town administration go and take a look at what would be required as a policy update and a land use bylaw to provide the flexibility and options within the land use bylaw.

“We certainly want to make sure any housing going into a light industrial district are going to provide quality housing with areas that are receptive to new residents. … This is not something we’re looking at inventing. It’s something that is well received in many communities for a variety of reasons.”

Neal LaMontagne, an associate lecturer and undergraduate program advisor for the University of Alberta’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said though it’s not an absolute rule, industrial space isn’t typically seen as a place for housing.

Though there’s flexibility, industrial areas are often protected from becoming residential use due to cost of land and the creation of jobs that can aid in diversifying local economies.

“You want industrial (land) to be affordable and you want the jobs as much as you want the housing,” he said. “You want a diverse economy and not just a resort economy. It makes sense to be at least cautious and protective of workspace areas such as industrial.”

LaMontagne noted it’s common for municipalities to move away from only having strict uses of space where it’s only commercial and industrial as mixed-use spaces become more common. However, there could be options to allow secondary uses that permit accessory dwelling units but the primary use should stay work-related.

“They should be cautious. … You want to protect it because once it goes residential, it’s not going back,” he said.

Town staff recommended at both the June and July council meetings to have council return with amendments to the land use bylaw and MDP to “discourage the provision of employee housing in industrial districts.”

Among the issues raised by Town staff have been the lack of amenities in the light industrial area for housing, noise associated with businesses, lack of sidewalks and connectivity, distance from garbage and the loss of potential use for commercial or industrial space.

The potential for units that are permitted for employee housing to be used as illegal vacation homes – a lightning rod of attention in the community – is also a possibility.

As a sought-after tourist spot, Canmore is not immune to such a switch but the investigation into seeing if a specific unit is matching up with zoning regulations is detailed and labour intensive.

Caveats and restrictive covenants have often been seen as a potential way to mitigate employee housing being used for other means such as tourist homes. The ability to enforce, however, can be difficult since neither are binding unless the Town is involved, which can be onerous given a municipality has limited abilities when it comes to private property.

Caitlin Miller, the Town’s manager of protective services and director of emergency management, said each investigation is unique and is often responding to complaints.

Among the considerations is the need to show definitive proof of violating a permitted zoning use, which can entail looking for potential online advertising, if new people are frequently coming and going from a property, if it’s just family visiting for a few days and if there’s more noise.

If an investigation leads to a ticket, it can be issued as a municipal tag or a provincial ticket by the Town’s municipal enforcement. Both tickets are appealable.

“It’s not as cut and dry,” said Miller.

“We have to be able to prove it. It needs to be reasonably proven. You can’t make assumptions. … We don’t take anonymous complaints because we will likely need someone to testify in court. Unless you catch them actually there, it can be difficult to track down the people who may be using it.”

LaMontagne said there are tools for a municipality to enforce such as business licences for Airbnb’s and caveats on land titles, but it ultimately comes down to the resources for enforcement.

In North America, he said, enforcement is largely reactive as opposed to proactive but that “enforcement is tough since it’s resource intensive and it can create conflict. It can be an issue, but it’s a valuable tool.”

The third-party gap analysis study recommends the Town work with the business community on shared priorities, address housing challenges, encourage commercial nodes and retain and use industrial lands efficiently.

It examined the Town’s seven commercial and two light industrial areas and “while housing is beyond the scope of this commercial gap analysis and light industrial land review, high-level consideration has been given to the impact of integrating residential development into commercial and industrial development.”

The Gateway at Three Sisters has been under development since approval in late 2021, but faced numerous delays in planning matters as well as an SDAB hearing that delayed the removal and storage of topsoil and fill.

The Smith Creek area structure plan (ASP), which is legally approved by the Land and Property Rights Tribunal (LPRT) but waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeal, also has a commercial and light industrial component meant for Smith Creek and Dead Man’s Flats residents and would be along the Trans-Canada Highway.

The Three Sisters Village ASP, also legally approved by the LPRT, would have an innovation district that includes creative manufacturing, retail, office space, light manufacturing, residences and artist lofts.

The commercial district would be between three and five hectares, while the innovation district is between two to five hectares.

The 184-page study examined Squamish and Kimberley for its light industrial case studies, which looked at local policies and possible comparisons to Canmore.

“An important element for both of these communities is a clear vision (supported by bylaws) to intensify available industrial lands within a limited land base,” read the study. “Intensification must look beyond land optimization and built form but also the creation of employment opportunities.”

The study also looked at residential-industrial precedents in Pemberton and Ladysmith in British Columbia. Pemberton allows up to four accessory dwelling units (ADU) in its industrial park and Ladysmith has a live/work industrial zone meant for smaller businesses, low-impact light industrial use with accessory retail sales or second floor residences.

In the early- to mid-2000s, the Town of Banff had similar issues arise with housing in its industrial area. The municipality allowed employee housing in the area in 2002 under strict guidelines, but ultimately loosened them in ensuing years.

The Town established regulations and its 2014 housing strategy further finetuned the area rules to permit housing development. The greatest barrier has been its isolation from the townsite, which is a priority when an area redevelopment plan potentially begins in 2024 with an emphasis on addressing connectivity.

The 2014 Banff Housing Strategy notes “housing in the industrial compound makes sense for people to live near their work, and it makes sense for the town to maximize residential opportunities.”

At Banff council’s July meeting, Banff staff informed council they were looking at possibly turning Town-owned land in the industrial compound for potential future employee housing.

Banff has a strict cap on commercial development due to federal legislation in the Canada National Parks Act, leading to increased interest in residential development in the industrial compound.

The Town of Banff has 30 units of employee housing, but unlike other municipalities, Banff has the need to reside to further ensure uses of employee housing are maintained and people are living and working in the national park.

Banff’s Municipal Planning Commission approved the first purpose-built residential apartment in the compound in 2017 for a 10-unit apartment at 103 Falcon St. Several one- or two-bedroom units have also been approved in the last 20 years.

The Function Junction neighbourhood south of Whistler Village provides housing, but was originally intended for light industrial use and has evolved to include commercial, retail, recreation and employee housing.

Whistler’s land use and development in its Community Vision and Official Community Plan (OCP) notes a balance between the municipality’s employee housing initiatives and commercial are important.

“Linkages between Whistler’s commercial and industrial activities, the number of jobs and employees, and the need for employee housing, must be recognized and addressed,” states Whistler’s OCP. “Many existing businesses are understaffed and not fully operational due to a current shortage of housing, which in turn affects customer service and visitor experience.”

LaMontagne noted how Whistler has been a leader when it comes to developing a comprehensive housing strategy that creates regulation and has purpose-built employee housing.

Rather than focusing on ad hoc housing development, he said it’s essentially to have a plan with both the public and private sectors working with one another to address issues.

“My intuitive reaction is you have to protect industrial lands, but you have to take employee housing seriously. It’s important to have a straightforward strategy to do that and not just chip away at cheap land in an industrial park,” he said.

“The solution is to have a really solid housing strategy that probably uses a local agency or authority that builds it in partnership with industry. That’s the way forward.”

Canmore council will potentially give first reading to the long-awaited Palliser ASP Sept. 5, which is proposing up to 1,300 new homes including roughly 1,000 units of affordable housing.

The goal is for a mixed-use walkable neighbourhood, adding new housing for Canmore Community Housing, creating diverse and affordable housing and aligning with Town council’s and community priorities. If passed, the draft ASP estimates a full build-out of 10-20 years.

But while the Palliser ASP holds the community’s needs in the future, employee housing could be a piece of the puzzle, O’Donnell said.

He noted what’s before council isn’t the final decision – with any council direction needing a public hearing – but additional information will aid in the process.

“It’s not about making a decision that’s an ultimate decision, it’s about doing a little bit more due diligence to ensure that research has been done so that we can make the best decision and we can have council be most informed and make their best decision going forward,” he said.

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