Last night, Smithers town council took the first of many steps toward the construction of low-income housing on the old LB Warner lot at 1621 Main Street.
At its regular meeting, that included a public hearing on the rezoning of the site, council voted 5-2 to adopt two bylaws.
The first reclassifies the designation of the lot from civic to mixed residential under the Official Community Plan.
The second changes the zoning designation of the land from public to medium-density residential.
Additionally, council set aside $250,000 of the recently acquired infrastructure $6.2 million grant funding to do remediation on the site.
The pivotal votes came around three-and-a-half hours into the meeting.
Councillors Frank Wray and Lorne Benson were opposed to the adoption of both bylaws, citing concerns ranging from incurred taxpayer costs to why the Province couldn’t develop provincially-owned land for the project.
It was standing room only in the council chamber as the night began with the public hearing.
Council heard just under 90 minutes of comments from citizens who came out to voice their opinion in support of or against the proposed changes.
At the heart of the debate was the potential for the lot to be used as a future location for provincially-funded low-income housing.
Lydia Howard, a housing advisor with the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre, said that although doing nothing might seem like a good idea now, it isn’t a long-term solution.
“Change can be unsettling and viewed as a threat to be avoided, however [it] can also be viewed as holding great potential,” she said.
“The lack of affordable housing in our community is a challenge that is not going to go away and is probably going to increase.”
But there were also those who said they were opposed to the development.
“I’m not saying don’t do the project … what I’m getting at is you’re looking at putting thirty houses on a contaminated site that has been remediated once [before],” said resident Blair Wind.
In addition to the public hearing, council spent just over an hour discussing the issue during debate period.
Coun. Benson said that, while he liked the idea of more low-income housing, he didn’t understand why Smithers was on the hook to use Town-owned land for the project.
“When the Province does own property within town boundaries and in proximity to the downtown core and services, why … not step forward and make use of that property?” he questioned the rest of council.
Members who voted for the adoption of the bylaws, however, voiced contrasting concerns that this was an opportunity they might not get again for years, or even decades.
“These are people who live in our community and I’m not sure on what divides up whose job it is,” said Coun. Gladys Atrill.
“We need to make sure that in five years there aren’t people sitting here on this table saying, ‘oh my gosh, the standards just got higher and now [remediation] is going to cost two times as much’.”
Preliminary estimates suggest it could cost up to $750,000 in remediation costs to bring the lot up to environmental standards for the Province.
But even this number is still an estimate, and all councillors voiced concerns about the total cost being much higher.
Mayor Taylor Bachrach noted numerous times to the public throughout the evening that the successful votes do not guarantee any sort of construction or that the project will move forward.
He also added that if, for example, remediation estimates come back at more than $750,000, there are no obligations, financial or otherwise, stopping the Town from backing out of the process.
During the discussion, Bachrach added he personally supported the bylaws.
“I’m biased towards action and it feels like we have an opportunity right now … that’s not going to come around for a long time,” he said.
Currently the LB Warner site houses a number of old buildings from the former Ministry of Highways works yard.
It is also home to the Bulkley Valley Gymnastics Club, a local not-for-profit organization.
None of the proposed changes include the area owned by the gymnastics club.