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Town presents case to tribunal on denied Smith Creek ASP

After a week of testimony for representatives and experts for Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Limited on the Smith Creek area structure plan, the Town of Canmore responded with its case at the Land and Property Rights Tribunal hearing.
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New homes under construction in Stewart Creek at Three Sisters Mountain Village April 1, 2021. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – After a week of testimony for representatives and experts for Three Sisters Mountain Village Properties Limited on the Smith Creek area structure plan, the Town of Canmore responded with its case at the Land and Property Rights Tribunal hearing.

Difficulties in addressing the needs of the community, attempts to add affordable housing to the ASP and the phasing of other lands covered by the 1992 Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) decision was expressed at length by Town witnesses.

The five tribunal members heard about the Town’s lack of authority in mandating affordable and how “affordability of housing is one of the biggest challenges in Canmore,” said Alaric Fish, the Town’s senior planner.

He noted there’s direction in the Municipal Development Plan to create an action plan to achieve 20 per cent affordable housing in the community, especially in future development, but Gwendolyn Stewart-Palmer – the legal representative for TSMVPL – added in cross-examination that the plan has yet to be approved by council.

“I personally believe the NRCB heard a commitment of a style of housing, a built form of housing, but also a commitment by the applicant to work with the community to figure out a solution, so they proposed one solution in built form but there was a commitment to addressing the need in Canmore,” Fish said. “I personally believe that was one of the fundamental reasons that the NRCB felt the application was in the public good.”

While Fish acknowledged that the Town’s ask of 25 per cent of housing in the two ASPs was a large request, which was highlighted in an Oct. 2019 email exchange that came from a freedom of information and protection of privacy request from TSMVPL, the Town has to look at all chances to add to its supply, he said.

“This is our last chance for lands with an NRCB approval that talk about affordable housing,” Fish said. “Otherwise, it’s dealing with every developer, builder or homeowner who comes in and wants to change the zoning on their property. … There’s precious little land in Canmore.”

In her testimony, Lauren Miller, the Town’s manager of planning and development, noted that while the action plan hasn’t been approved the Town will still look at options.

“We’re not waiting for this action plan to materialize to at least have a conversation. If we have a willing applicant who wants to help us meet that particular policy goal, then by all means we want to explore that opportunity.”

She added how there’s no method to control the price point on the housing market, but that having units provided to Canmore Community Housing helps the overall affordable housing inventory.

Miller highlighted if a location is desirable – which the Bow Valley is – then the market will push prices upwards regardless of the types of housing forms, highlighting that “demand eats form for breakfast.”

Chris Ollenberger, the managing principle of QuantumPlace Developments and director, strategy and development for TSMVPL, pointed to efforts by TSMVPL to assist with affordable housing. He noted the minimum 10 per cent affordable housing included in the ASP, the Town declining to accept land to build its own units and discussions of a seed fund as examples of attempts to work with the municipality.

He added “relatively affordable forms of development” in smaller units, accessory dwellings, condos and townhouses are part of the plan, more than 200 entry level housing in Stewart Creek and Three Sisters Ridge, 17 affordable units at Mineside Court and 48 affordable units at McArthur Place as examples of providing affordable homes to the Town.

Without Smith Creek moving forward, he said there would be “zero” affordable units added from the lands since no ASP was approved.

While affordable housing has played a significant part in the Smith Creek hearings, the topic of commercial development – or lack thereof – was stressed.

Fish said that of the developed TSMVPL lands, just under 99 per cent have been residential and 1.3 per cent non-residential. He added it’s combined for $1.5 billion in residential assessment and about $20 million in non-residential assessment.

“That is a huge lack of public benefit that has been achieved under the current development,” he said.

“It’s frustrating for the Town that 30 years after the NRCB decision we still are seeing very little commercial development. It’s one of the key benefits of the project we’re not realizing,” Fish said. “That’s a piece we’re increasingly feeling we need to draw a line in the sand.”

He added later in his testimony in the last 20 years, there has been $400 million in commercial development in Canmore based on statistics from building permits.

“There has been significant commercial development in Canmore,” Fish said. “Hopefully as we move forward, we can find a solution to achieve some of that growth in the Three Sisters lands that’s good for the developer and good for the community.”

However, Ollenberger emphasized that TSMVPL has been attempting to move forward with the roughly 200,000-square-feet at the Gateway commercial development – part of the Stewart Creek ASP – in recent years, particularly with leases set to go for units.

He stressed that for commercial development to proceed, businesses look to have a level of residential for customers in the area to achieve success.

“The characterization that Three Sisters is attempting to leapfrog development and hasn’t brought on commercial and that the commercial has been lacking to date may have overlooked the fact we actually have applied for zoning for Gateway commercial district and that was received a couple of years back.

“We applied for subdivision and that approval has also been seen and the expense is well over seven figures for zoning, subdivision, we cleared trees, we’ve graded the site… The process has been prolonged.”

In cross-examination of Fish, Stewart-Palmer showed that he wasn’t the day-to-day planner on Smith Creek and that there must be a form of consistency between the ASPs and the NRCB decision.

“Complete consistency is not required and that to be consistent there must be broad consistency between the area structure plans and the NRCB approval,” she said.

She further highlighted how staff had recommended approval of both second and third reading of Smith Creek and that the Thunderstone Quarry lands, which would house a significant portion of the commercial and light industrial, were included in the 2018 terms of reference.

Miller outlined additional concerns of the Town such as the potential of having to expand the urban growth boundary, increased greenhouse gas emissions from more development, Smith Creek being separate from the core of Canmore, the wildlife corridor placement, the level of engagement with the Stoney Nakoda and development becoming second homes for people primarily living outside of the community.

Miller added the difficulty in interpreting the 1992 NRCB decision with the ASPs due to it being further from the original decision.

“At no time did we feel like the NRCB decision did not apply. We knew that the decision was specific to these lands and that the means of that decision Three Sisters had a right to develop. The question before us was how do we meld a 30-year-old decision with some of our very new policy documents. … We needed to bridge that gap. It was never that we thought the NRCB decision never applied, but because of the transition in time we were going to need to work together to figure out how to make something that made contextual sense in 2020.”

The phasing aspect of past and proposed TSMVPL-owned lands took a significant portion of the discussion.

Fish said the phasing was a “critical piece for the community” and outlined how Stewart Creek, the Homesteads and Peaks of Grassi have all proceeded, but the Resort Centre lands were skipped over despite having an ASP.

He acknowledged councils allowed the phasing to occur the way it has to assist with costs such as servicing and the Three Sisters Parkway – which were covered by the developer – but stressed the importance of non-residential income for the Town.

“The Town needs non-residential tax income. It’s a fundamental component of a healthy taxation regime in a community and I think it’s a big challenge for places like Chestermere and Cochrane and High River where there are high residential rates of taxation and relatively low non-residential taxation,” Fish said.

“At some point we need to recognize the inconsistency with the NRCB phasing plan. … That has had quite a significant impact for us.”

Ollenberger noted the reason for the delay on the unfinished golf course – which represents more than 50 per cent of the land on the Resort Centre ASP – is the difficulty in attracting commercial components without knowing what the entire project will look like.

“Without knowing the outcome of the unfinished golf course, it’s essentially impossible to be giving the core resort components like hotel, retail, restaurants as third-party investors really need to know where you’re going, what’s going to be around them, what’s the market going to be and what’s the context they’re setting themselves up for before they proceed to move further. … It’s been a complete problem having the unfinished golf course without a determined future with some idea of certainty what is going to be the outcome.”

The Smith Creek hearing is set to finish Thursday (March 10) and the hearing on the Three Sisters Village ASP is scheduled to begin on March 21.