An affordable housing project was approved for rezoning last week, but it still faces considerable hurdles — including public acceptance of the city’s role in the project.

Rossland affordable housing project clears zoning hurdle — but faces others

Dozens show up to ask questions of council, but found answers wanting

Rossland city council has approved the rezoning of the Emcon lot for an affordable housing project.

But there were some misgivings on the part of local taxpayers.

About 50 people showed up for the rezoning hearing, which was to see the uptown property’s zoning changed from light industrial to midtown mixed.

Rezoning the property, which previously housed equipment and materials for road maintenance, was a necessary step to make the idea of the four-storey, 37-unit housing project a reality.

The city is partnering with the Lower Columbia Affordable Housing Society, BC Housing, and the Columbia Basin Trust to build the project. The city will own the bottom floor of the project and use it as a new home for city hall.

Rossland’s old city hall has been closed for nearly two years, after the roof collapsed under a snow load.

Council and staff say the project will provide better work space for city employees. As well, by the city’s committment of about $3 million, nearly $12 million is leveraged from other funding sources. It says the project is a public good, strengthening the city’s economy by providing housing for lower-wage workers.

The city will pay for its share through reserves and selling some unneeded properties around town.

Several people attending the meeting spoke in favour of the project.

However, other citizens had questions — things like what the operating costs of the building would be after construction, what the city would get selling off the old city hall, what environmental and traffic studies have been done and why the city thought spending reserves for the project was a good idea in the long term.

“I am supportive of the concept of low-cost housing, but I’m not confident you have all the answers,” said one frustrated intervenor. “I don’t have a lot of confidence taxpayers won’t be on the hook.”

Others wanted an even stronger voice for the public in the final decision.

“I’m going to propose something. Democracy starts on the local level. In a democracy you have the power of a free vote,” said one man. “Why can’t we take it to a referendum?”

But Mayor Kathy Moore said since the city was not borrowing money, a referendum wasn’t necessary, and would only add cost to the project.

After the public hearing, councillors unanimously approved rezoning the lot.

But they did say they wanted to make it clear it was just the rezoning that had been approved.

“I am supporting the rezoning, but I want to continue to see the process unfold,” said councillor Andy Morel. “Seeing by the audience size we had, and by the people on the street who are asking questions … I’m not sure how to answer them all, but putting more information out, especially about the financial aspects of the project, to me is critical.

“But I’m keen to see the project continue down the steps.”

The day after the meeting, Moore acknowledged the concerns raised by the public at the meeting.

“I know there are some in attendance who were disappointed that I didn’t have all the answers at my fingertips and I will probably get a whipping here in social media,” the mayor said in a Facebook post. “No surprise there. But please remember, this was a rezoning application, and this is a work in progress.”

Moore asked the public to be patient while the project details are worked out.

“Some questions couldn’t be answered because final decisions haven’t been made yet and didn’t need to be at this stage of the project,” she wrote. “However, we do have environmental assessments, we do have operating costs for the housing portion, city hall operating costs will be extrapolated from our existing operations, along with projections and estimates for the new site …

“In any case, it was great to see such a strong turnout of folks. Your questions are legitimate and will be answered. I appreciate those folks willing to stand up in favor of the project too, as well as the emails that have been sent to council in support as well.”

The bylaw approval comes with a few provisos, however, including setting back the top floor for aesthetic purposes, meeting high energy-efficiency standards, and creating right-of-ways for pedestrians and other traffic.

The project now moves forward, and still has hurdles to clear. And public acceptance is one of them, as Moore noted.

“I recognize that for pretty much every decision we make, there will be happy people and unhappy people, but the good news is that there is always another election on the horizon and the public is always invited to ‘throw the bums out!’”

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