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SDAB appeal raises need, concerns of employee housing in light industrial area

An appeal against a Canmore planning decision to reject a pair of employee housing units in Bow Meadows Crescent will be decided by the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board in the coming days.
Canmore's Subdivision and Development Appeal Board approved a pair of employee housing units for 127 Bow Meadows Cres. JUNGMIN HAM RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – An appeal launched against a Canmore planning decision to reject employee housing units in Bow Meadows Crescent was given the green light by the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board to allow work to begin on the housing.

The appeal, which was heard on Wednesday (Feb. 22), was issued Tuesday (Feb. 28) after the Town’s planning department refused a development permit to convert a 140-square-foot trade services site to employee housing as part of an ongoing renovation and expansion at 127 Bow Meadows Crescent. 

As part of the appeal board’s ruling, it found employee housing was permitted in the area and the landowner solely intended the space would be for such housing, but also that the impact of light industrial would be minimal and a caveat would be placed on the land title to ensure the units are only for employee housing.

Brought forward by Ashton Construction Services owner Steve Ashton and the property’s owner Kris Charchun of Canmore Glass, the appeal argued the Town’s planning department didn’t follow Section 617 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA), statutory planning policy, land use bylaw regulations and the direction of Canmore council.

“There is a well-known issue in Canmore of both available space for business employment and for employee housing. This application aligns very well with addressing these issues,” according to the submission from McElhanney Consulting representing the appellants, adding it aligns with council’s strategic plan.

Ashton, the former chair of Canmore Community Housing for five years, told the board the decision to add employee housing was due to housing and staff shortages in the community. While Canmore Glass pays above a living wage, he noted staff struggle to find housing that’s affordable.

He said the second floor of industrial space is often offices or retail space, adding logistically industrial work is done on the main floor due to the ease of moving supplies in and out of a building.

“[Charchun is] really trying to take into consideration the things he needs to do for his business to succeed and continue to succeed,” Ashton said. “That’s what this is about – is trying to make sure he can retain staff and maintain his business in the valley.”

Lauren Miller, the Town’s manager of planning and development, told the board the Town understands “housing is a critical issue in the community.” She added the inclusion of common amenity housing – a new land use in 2019 – allows housing for shared spaces.

Miller pointed to the Palliser lands and the ongoing work for the area structure plan that is expected to return for council decision later this year. She said the largely undeveloped land is expected to have hundreds of units of housing in the coming years.

Though the lack of housing has reached critical levels, Miller said it is important the specific use of an industrial area remain.

“These possibilities can’t require the Town to mortgage the economic and social well-being of the community for short-term solutions to systemic problems,” she said. “The municipality has a responsibility to be more strategic than that.”

Nathan Grivell, a development planner for the Town, added concerns about noise, smells created by light industrial use, and the Town not having the ability to ensure the units would be used strictly for employees.

He said policy statements in the MDP “are not meant to be read in isolation” and that there are several “goals and objectives in the MDP and these all have to be weighed comprehensively not individually.”

Town staff said a lack of industrial space in the municipality saw several businesses relocate outside of Canmore because of affordability of industrial space.

They pointed to the MDP, which directs industrial land be protected since there’s a limited supply in the Town’s inventory. A staff report, however, noted new housing should be supported in Canmore.

The report further argues there’s no direction in the Indian Flats ASP for housing, while it added housing in industrial areas have had “several applications proposing housing” in Canmore.

“Allowing for uninhibited industrial redevelopment is paramount for this area. … Canmore has limited areas where these industries could set up shop or expand into when current facilities no longer meet their growing needs. Permitting housing at this location poses a risk to this objective,” stated a staff report.

Both Ashton and Michelle Ouellette, of McElhanney, said Charchun would accept a restriction, such as a restrictive covenant on the property or caveat on the land title, to ensure it is only used for employee housing.

Ouellette added while the long-term vision of the Palliser lands will help the community, there’s an immediate need for local businesses struggling to find employees.

“It’s important we make decisions in land use based in the rules and directions we’ve been provided,” she said.

This issue first came up last May when the Canmore Planning Commission approved 12 employee housing units at 121 Bow Meadow Cres. Town staff had recommended against the plan.

Roughly a dozen businesses in the area sent in letter of support.  Two speakers also offered support, with former Canmore Mayor Ron Casey pointing out the area is intended for light industrial and housing for employees is “not a magic bullet” but “is absolutely critical.”