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Employee housing on path to being 'discouraged' in Canmore light industrial areas

“The words we choose up here are incredibly important.  … I see this decision as bolstering the will of this council. We’ve had a great conversation and we’ve looked at all angles and everyone’s made poignant comments and debate. I look forward to that in the future.”

CANMORE – Clarity on the future of employee housing in Canmore’s light industrial lands will be gained in the coming months.

Canmore council approved making possible amendments to the Town’s land use bylaw and Municipal Development Plan to “discourage the provision of employee housing in industrial districts.”

In a 4-3 vote, with Couns. Karen Marra, Tanya Foubert and Mayor Sean Krausert in opposition, a lively discussion will lead to an eventual public hearing that will allow the public to voice concerns, support or neutrality on what has become a polarizing topic in the community.

“I recognize livability is one of our key goals, but I also think we can look at livability in the short-term but also the long-term as well,” said Coun. Jeff Mah, who was the swing vote in the long-awaited decision. “From 1887 to 1979, Canmore was a mining town. … There are probably times in the thick of it we could not imagine Canmore being something other than digging coal out of the ground.

“Here we are in 2023 and the past four decades we’re a tourist town and it’s tough to imagine we might be something else. Maybe we’ll always be a tourist town, but change is constant as we saw through the pandemic and I think giving up our industrial lands for housing, especially at this point in time, we lose our ability to pivot and seize new opportunities to diversify our economy.”

The narrow vote had considerable back and forth between council members who all expressed the importance of creating housing, but also discussed what would ultimately be best for the long-term interests of the community.

Coun. Joanna McCallum noted “where people live and where people are raised is very important” to her and highlighted several different projects council has passed and are looking at that have or will add hundreds of market and non-market residential developments.

She highlighted under the land use bylaw, visitor accommodation units can also turn units into employee housing for up to five years and it would be a better use rather than taking from an industrial area.

“I’d prefer to see that happen first before we start digging away at the sustainability of our future,” McCallum said.

Council previously postponed the debate in June and then again in July until all seven members were on hand. For nearly a year-and-a-half, employee housing decisions for light industrial areas have been made by the Canmore Planning Commission (CPC) and Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB).

The release of the Town’s long-awaited retail gap analysis and light industrial and commercial land review study was 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.

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.

“Never before have I seen all of the major business organizations in town so aligned on an issue as evident on the joint letter of support and subsequent communications,” said Krausert, highlighting light industrial is near amenities such as transit, trails, other residential areas and restaurants.

He called a piece of the puzzle to look at in an effort to assist in creating housing and added he had yet to see economic analysis evidence to show losing second floor industrial lands would impact the community.

“We have businesses that are willing to be part of the solution and pay for it themselves and implement it right away,” he said. “I believe it’d be criminal to turn them away, especially since there’s already people living in these areas. In my mind, it’s acting on what we know and not what we fear and it’s a matter of integrity for this council.”

Foubert echoed Krausert's comments, but also how there was value in both sides. She emphasized it was about seeing whether there were ways to mitigate issues of having employee housing in light industrial as opposed to actually making a decision.

She pointed out she felt the 2016 MDP supports potentially using light industrial lands for employee housing.

“We haven’t explored that. We haven’t looked at criteria and supporting this motion doesn’t actually commit to doing anything,” she said. “What this motion does is bring back to us potential solutions to make employee housing in light industrial a possibility and at that point if we can’t create the conditions that satisfy all of council there’s still an off-ramp and the ability to take a different turn in a direction that we give and preserve those lands for future industrial uses only.”

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.”

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

Rachel Ludwig, CEO of Tourism Canmore Kananaskis, and Ian O’Donnell, Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA) executive director, each thanked council for the importance council members placed on the decision.

The two organizations are part of the Canmore Business Alliance with Innovate Canmore, Bow Valley Chamber of Commerce and Canmore Downtown BIA, which held an employee housing forum Aug. 29 and advocated to allow such units on second floor of light industrial districts.

“I don’t think our organizations as the Canmore Business Alliance held back on what we wanted to see and the vote was not that, but there will be more opportunities in the future to maybe answer some of the questions councillors had,” Ludwig said.

O’Donnell said it’s a complex issue with different elements to consider ranging from community and business priorities, land use and housing, noting it was clear council members put considerable thought into debate and learning about the issue.

“While disappointed for BOWDA to not allow business owners to solve their own and other business labour issues by way of housing, we certainly appreciate the significant discussion and very heartfelt discussion that allows us to move forward with a decision and provide us with clarity to make other business decisions.,” he said.

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 bins and the loss of potential use for commercial or industrial space.

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 is binding unless the Town is involved, which can be onerous given a municipality has limited abilities when it comes to private property.

The third-party study 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 being approved 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), 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 gap would be between two to five hectares.

The 184-page study examined Squamish and Kimberley for its light industrial case studies, which examined 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,” states 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 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 ultimately 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 recommend finetuning 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.

Coun. Jeff Hilstad noted any amendments that come from Town of Canmore staff are designed to discourage rather than eliminate, still providing potential opportunity.

As a member of CPC, Hilstad also highlighted how only visitor accommodation application in the past year has come with employee housing as part of the development and it was for one unit. He said he would prefer to see employee housing there rather than light industrial.

“It’s a residential type neighbourhood because people are coming to vacation. It’s commercial activity on a residential scale. … I would love to see our business community put some employee housing in that area,” he said. “We’ve given them the option and excuses of people not wanting to live where they work, but now people want to live in industrial areas? It’s OK over here, but not over here. I really struggle when I see both sides of that.”

With the narrow vote for the decision in a council that has voted unanimously on many topics, Coun. Wade Graham said he was impressed with the discussion and passion shown by all seven members.

“The words we choose up here are incredibly important.  … I see this decision as bolstering the will of this council,” he said. “We’ve had a great conversation and we’ve looked at all angles and everyone’s made poignant comments and debate. I look forward to that in the future.”

CORRECTION: The original article incorrectly stated the vote would lead to a public hearing. Town staff will return with amendments to the land use bylaw and Municipal Development Plan, which will have a first reading and if passed go to a public hearing. The Outlook apologizes for the error.

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