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The housing battle for Bow Meadows Crescent

The continued battle on the future of employee housing in Canmore’s light industrial area entered its third round.

CANMORE – The continued battle on the future of employee housing in Canmore’s light industrial area entered its third round.

Another appeal against a decision by Canmore’s planning department to refuse employee housing units in Bow Meadows Crescent was heard by the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB) May 18.

The appeal, brought forward by Basecamp Resorts after the Town’s planning department rejected its application for employee housing, saw a rare packed council chambers that highlighted the growing contention between businesses in the Bow Meadows Crescent area and Town planning staff.

The ongoing disagreements between the two sides have played out in front of the Canmore Planning Commission (CPC) and the quasi-judicial SDAB, with the Basecamp request to allow for 12 second floor employee housing units to add 34 bedrooms at the 100 Alpine Meadows development.

“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. “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.”

McLean said employee housing allows staff a “stepping stone” for housing to establish themselves in other forms of housing such as rentals and becoming owners.

The continued fight over the future of employee housing in the area of Bow Meadows Crescent was the second such appeal for the light industrial area. SDAB previously approved two units of employee housing as part of a renovation and expansion of 127 Bow Meadows Crescent.

At the time, SDAB found impact on light industrial would be minimal and also put a caveat on the land title to ensure only employee housing would be in place for the units.

CPC also approved 12 employee housing units in May 2022 for 121 Bow Meadows Crescent.

At each of the prior hearings at SDAB and CPC, as well as the May 18 hearing, both the appellant and Town staff used similar arguments to the past.

The district allows for employee housing as a discretionary use above the main floor, but Town staff emphasized the difficulty in enforcing such units remain solely for housing as well as the potential low standard of living, while applicants and businesses raised the desperate need for housing for employees.

“There’s no binding method that we can ensure this will remain as employee housing. Things that are employee housing today, may not become employee housing in the future. There’s no way for the board to bind this requirement and there’s no way for the Town to enforce that,” said Town development planner Harry Shnider.

Lauren Miller, the Town’s manager of planning and development said the Town was “acutely aware of the housing situation within our community,” but that the Town is “about housing for all in areas that are appropriate for residential uses.”

“All residents, regardless of their socio-economic status deserve the opportunity to have the same quality of life that would be afforded to them if they were in a residential area,” she said.

While caveats and restrictive covenants are often seen as a potential way to mitigate a designated use such as employee housing being flipped for other uses, the enforcement aspect of such lands still remains the only way to ensure whether a unit is ultimately preserved for employee housing. Neither protections are ultimately binding unless the Town itself is involved, making it more difficult for a municipality with its already limited abilities when it comes to private property.

The appeal argued the Town’s planning department neglected to follow Section 617 of the Municipal Government Act, statutory planning policy, the Municipal Development Plan, land use bylaw regulations and Canmore council’s strategic plan.

Town staff countered by saying they declined the application since the proposal took up 46 per cent of the gross floor area that was approved for industrial use, while the MDP prioritizes the conservation of industrial space.

The Indian Flats area structure plan (ASP), which is where Bow Meadows Crescent is located, was adopted in 1994 and is silent on employee housing.

While the planning disagreements continue, council direction for employee housing units in the light industrial area has been absent leading to the continued appeals, but CPC and SDAB have given a level of precedence in the matter.

Further complicating matters are the conflicting nature of the subject from the Municipal Development Plan and land use bylaw. However, the MDP states employee housing brought forward through private initiatives “should be supported by the Town” as well as commercial developments may be required to “address employee housing issues”.

The land use bylaw states non-light industrial uses should only be allowed “where such uses do not displace current industrial uses nor utilize land or buildings with potential light industrial development.”

When Canmore council passed its strategic plan in June 2022, the creation of housing and addressing affordability were among the key points.

At the same time as approving the guiding document for council’s vision for its four-year term, a trio of motions were put forward to call on upper levels of government to address Canmore’s housing crisis by providing land, policy changes and funding to add to the affordable housing stock in the municipality.

Town staff were directed to look at potential initiatives to help with affordability and increase affordable housing options. A comprehensive report on housing in the community will come to council June 6, while the Palliser ASP – and its promise of adding hundreds of residential units – is expected to come to council for approval in the coming months.

The 2019 Bow Valley Regional Housing Needs Assessment identified a need for another 1,100 units of non-market housing by 2027 to keep on top of the already crushing housing market that consistently hovers below one per cent for vacancy. But since the study was released, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated housing in the valley, making it the most pressing issue for local government, residents and businesses.

Michelle Ouelette, a division manager in planning for McElhanney, highlighted the past precedents of both planning commission and SDAB previously allowing employee housing in the Bow Meadows Crescent area.

She added there were amenities in the area as well as connections to public transit and trails.

The building itself will be condominiumized to allow for its sale, but main floor and second floor would be attached, both Ouelette and McLean told the board. The industrial unit was approved in 2022 and 13 units are intended to be built in two buildings, with the main floor and upper units being connected to one another.

Eleanor Miclette, the Town’s manager of economic development, said the lack of affordable industrial space and land constraints have seen businesses leave the community.

“Housing is not appropriate or compatible because of the current limited nature of industrial land and the resulting potential for conflict arises, which could directly limit new business opportunities,” Miclette read from the upcoming Retail/Light Industrial Gap Analysis report coming to council June 6.

The Town’s manager of protective services Caitlin Miller said her department often hears from residents of noise complaints and it has a “significant and psychological impact on the residents living there,” and can impact the standard of living.

Town staff argued on the importance of protecting the supply of limited industrial land supply as well as protecting adjacent land uses, while noting the type of industrial use could change as new businesses take up space in the area.

In addition, the staff report highlighted employee housing in the district needs “adequate long-term and legally binding provisions” to ensure the units remain only for employees.

In neighbouring Banff, the municipality went through its own situation of allowing employee housing in its industrial compound in the mid-2000s.

The Town’s planning and development department at the time found employee housing as a fit due to the light industrial nature of the area as well as the idea of housing in industrial areas being commonplace for decades, with residential use being allowed in the area in 2002.

Though interest was high, little housing was actually built. The Town’s 2014 housing strategy further finetuned the regulations for developing housing in the light industrial area, but a significant barrier remained its isolation from the townsite.

An ARP for the industrial compound will take place in the coming years that to give a conceptual framework for the area and any long-term redevelopment that may take place.

Banff’s Municipal Planning Commission approved the first purpose-built residential apartment in the compound in 2017 for a 10-unit building at 103 Falcon St., which led to discussions about safer and legal crossing of the Canadian Pacific Railway that is still ongoing.

The Town of Banff and Roam also added a transit line to the industrial compound to connect with the townsite to improve connectivity between the two areas.

Several one- or two-bedroom units have been approved in the past two decades.

Banff’s 2014 Housing Strategy identified “housing in the industrial compound it makes sense for people to live near their work, and it makes sense for the town to maximize residential opportunities.” The strategy, however, earmarked the greatest concern of improving connectivity to the rest of the Banff townsite.

However, Banff also has additional legislative protection through the federal government, most notably the need-to-reside requirements to live in the national park. Canmore, on the other hand, is firmly placed between Banff and little amount of residential development in Kananaskis Country, leaving it as one of the lone spots to live in the mountains.

The Town of Banff is also undergoing potential changes to its bed and breakfast regulations in an effort to have more housing returned to the rental market.

The growing contention in Canmore was highlighted between the two sides. SDAB hearings normally only having a handful of people attend, but about 30 people attended last week's hearing, many of whom are business owners in the Bow Meadows Crescent area.

A cavalcade of community business owners spoke not only in favour of the project, but the desperate circumstances many find themselves in with a lack of staff primarily due to shortages of housing.

In addition to the 13 letters of support, 16 people spoke in favour and of the desperate need for staff housing for businesses to survive.

Dustin Taylor, the owner of Cascade Mechanical, emphasized the importance to provide “affordability and sustainability in staff retention.”

He added at the recent job fair hosted at Elevation Place by Job Resource Centre the main question asked by potential employees was whether businesses provided staff housing.

“The reality is, right now in Canmore, most business owners are kind of burning the candles at both ends because every person has the same challenge point and the same challenge point that’s been in front of us for the last 30 years.”

Rocky Mountain Bagel Company co-owner Darren Fischer raised issues of the growing cost of living, affordability and housing issues and if “is Canmore worth it anymore for how hard we have to work to make a living. We need more support.”

He said the lack of staff – which saw the company have one-third less staff than needed last summer – contributed to a conservative estimated loss of $180,000 a month in sales with fewer operating hours.

Former Canmore mayor and MLA for the riding Ron Casey said in his experience – which included building more than 30 industrial condominium units – the industrial and commercial use in the area is largely only needed for the main floor, with second floor mainly used for storage.

“This is not a magic bullet. It’s not going to save the world. It’s not going to be the answer, but what it is is a start in the right direction. It’s part of a continuum of support that new people coming to this community can get,” he said.

Bruce Marpole, the communications manager for Tourism Canmore Kananaskis and speaking on behalf of the organization, spoke of the desperate need for staff housing to support tourism-related businesses.

“We know our business partners are finding it difficult to hire and retain staff from entry level up to management positions. … Basic housing needs cannot be met, making it difficult to recruit and retain staff,” he said.

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