Parksville council approved first and second reading of a zoning amendment bylaw for a contentious supportive housing project, but only after voting down a motion for a referendum.
Despite the vote, there were roars of approval in support of a referendum from an overflow crowd at city hall on Monday, May 7.
Approximately 200 people, many of them waving yellow cards expressing opposition to the supportive housing project and winter shelter proposed for 222 Corfield St., filled council chambers and overflowed into the lobby of the Parksville Civic and Technology Centre.
The room’s rear wall panels were opened for the meeting, during which a delegation of representatives from BC Housing and the Island Crisis Care Centre took questions from councillors for more than an hour.
“Housing is a human right,” said Violet Hayes, executive director of ICCS, which has contracted with BC Housing to staff the proposed facility. “Our goal at ICCS is to see people we work with make healthy life choices. And this project fits in line with the housing-first strategy that we have been using for three years for the Oceanside Task Force (on Homelessness).”
The 52-unit, $6.9-million supportive housing project was announced March 9 in a Parksville appearance by Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Almost immediately, an organized opposition formed, objecting to the inclusion of drug-addicted residents and the placement of the seasonal winter shelter within the complex, while claiming the city was ramming the project through without public consultation.
On March 19, council voted to have staff draft a zoning amendment bylaw for the housing project, in a meeting interrupted several times by opponents.
The following day, March 20, the city joined BC Housing and ICCS in an open house at the Parksville Community and Conference Centre to answer questions from the public.
That led opponents of the downtown housing project to host their own open house at the Mt. Arrowsmith Legion hall in Parksville on Apr. 13, a meeting that organizers said drew up to 250 people.
They have also established a website, www.parksvilleshelter.com, to address some of the issues, which proponents of the housing project, in turn have suggested includes misinformation.
“I’ve heard much talk in the community, I’ve read many Facebook pages, I’ve read websites, and I know there’s a lot of inaccurate information, as well as information that is based on huge assumptions,” said Renate Sutherland, founding member of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, during the brief public comment period before the meeting.
“My question tonight to mayor and council is, can I be assured you will base your decision, whatever that is tonight and moving forward, on accurate information that’s based in fact and not based in people’s fear?” she said.
Adam Fras, who has been circulating a petition requesting the project be moved away from downtown Parksville, also wanted assurance from council that it would take into consideration all the community’s input.
“I, too, ask to know if your minds are already made up on this project or if we’re already moving through a statutory process,” Fras said while following Sutherland to the microphone.
“There is a lot of concerns that have been coming forward, with a lot of community members having questions. I think we deserve to have a public question-and-answer so that not just the delegation that’s here tonight has a chance to ask questions and try to figure out what’s happening in our community.”
A public hearing will be the next step in the process. Following approval of first and second readings of the zoning amendment bylaw Monday evening, council scheduled the hearing for Tuesday, June 19.
It will be held at the Parksville Community and Conference Centre in order to accommodate an expected repeat of Monday’s overflow crowd.
Coun. Leanne Salter later threw a wrinkle into the proceedings while questioning Hayes and Craig Crawford, BC Housing vice-president.
While acknowledging there is already drug use in the community taking place out of sight every day, she said she didn’t believe it was her decision to decide what the supportive housing project would look like.
“It’s not my decision to make,” said Salter. “I just got elected here. Rather than go to a public forum, I suggest we put this as a referendum on the next ballot.”
The card-waving crowd in opposition to the project cheered loudly at this prospect and, when Salter confirmed she wanted to submit the referendum as a motion, whooped again when Coun. Teresa Patterson seconded the motion.
But in the end, they were the only two that voted in favour, as the motion failed on a 4-2 vote. Mayor Marc Lefebvre and couns. Kim Burden, Mary Beil and Kirk Oates voted against it, and Coun. Sue Powell was absent.
“There is a referendum coming up,” Oates said, referring to the Oct. 20 municipal election.
“It’s the election. Should this council make a decision this community disagrees with, they’ll have an opportunity to voice that. We were elected to make decisions on behalf of the citizens; a referendum is an abandonment of what we were elected to do.”
Previously, Oates and other councillors had asked BC Housing’s Crawford about statistics at similar supportive housing projects in B.C.
Citing housing developments in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Surrey, Victoria and Kelowna, Crawford said statistics shared on BC Housing’s website show that police calls were reduced following the opening of the housing units, while neighbouring property values were unaffected.
“You currently have homeless people in your community,” Crawford said. “I’d put forth that tourists and residents alike would find this community a better place if those people who are currently homeless now are safely housed.”
“If we don’t do anything will the problem go away?” Oates asked.
“No, it would get worse,” Crawford replied.
Patterson said that her priorities as a councillor were homelessness and single parents.
“This facility doesn’t have any suites, any facilities available for families,” Patterson said.
Crawford said BC Housing does provide affordable housing for families and seniors, as well, and that Parksville could conceivably receive such funding in the future.
Patterson asked why the Corfield project couldn’t have been designated for families.
“The first tranche of funding we were given by the government was a rapid response to an urgent need,” said Crawford.
“And that urgent need was identified as the homeless/homeless risk population — quickly followed by the opportunity to develop affordable housing for families, as well.”