Council split on Spring Bank rezoning

·7 min read

Merritt City Council has given First and Second Reading to both an OCP and Zoning Bylaw amendment, which will potentially permit a new housing development on Spring Bank Ave.

This is the third time the subject property has been rezoned to accommodate a potential development.

“In 2000 the 1995 zoning bylaw was amended first to change the zoning from the property from P1 to P3, and P3 at the time was the institutional zone which was called public use,” explained Manager of Planning and Development Services, Don McArthur.

“And the intention there was to allow the property owner to develop a senior’s care facility on the parcel, that was always the intention when that happened, when that rezoning went ahead. However, when the property owner then went to apply to BC Housing for financial support, BC Housing informed them that without multi-family as a permitted use in the zone that they wouldn’t be eligible or they wouldn’t qualify for funding.”

At that time, the property owner came back to the City and requested a second rezoning, which was granted in May of 2000, at that time, ‘Seniors Housing’ was also added as a permitted use.

“So, the intention for that property when it was rezoned to public use or to the Institutional Zone, the P3 Zone was not for it to be an institutional facility of any kind, rather to be a seniors care facility or a housing facility,” McArthur continued.

The property owner has now re-envisioned the development, not as a seniors-only model but as inter-generational affordable housing, which would see units for elders and families, as well as approximately five units set aside for youth.

There had been some suggestions from residents in the area that the site should be designated as a school. However, the City spoke to representatives from School District (SD) No. 58 Nicola-Similkameen and they indicated that they had no plans to build a school on the property, and similarly NVIT had no interest in establishing a satellite campus at this location. The steep slope of the property also makes it unsuitable for a school with playgrounds and playing fields.

Should it become necessary, SD No. 58 has expressed interest in constructing a school in the North Bench neighbourhood, when that area becomes developed, and in the meantime they plan to continue to direct students in the area to the Bench Elementary.

“They are currently discussing a potential expansion to Bench Elementary,” explained McArthur, which would address any additional students that the development may bring should they exceed the capacity of the current school.

The City also hopes to connect Spring Bank Ave. to Grimmett St. in future, which SD No. 58 supports, as it would make it easier and safer for students to walk to and from school at Bench Elementary.

For the several proposed developments in the city, geotechnical concerns have been raised by citizens, and this property is no exception. Although the City cannot require a geotechnical analysis, the developer has indicated that one will be completed as this is one of the requirements by BC Housing in order to approve funding for the project.

Mayor and council debated the OCP and Zoning Bylaw amendments at length, bringing up their own concerns with the project. The issue of water availability and consumption was raised, as Merritt has experienced strict watering restrictions during the past several summers.

“I’m not comfortable with any traffic plans and water; every single person keeps saying where is the water going to come from, and I don’t even know where the water’s going to come from, maybe someone can answer that question for me,” said Councillor White.

City CAO Sean Smith assured Council that the Nicola Valley had sufficient water, and that citizens of Merritt had drastically reduced their water consumption, using roughly 1.2 million fewer cubic metres per year than they had in 2006.

“This isn’t a matter of us running out of water, we have plenty of water in our aquifers to sustain a much larger population, even with our existing infrastructure, than we currently have,” explained Smith.

“The issue is that we need to find a way to better support Coldwater River flows, particularly during the peak drought season of august, and so I want to hone in that that is really the concern that we need to be narrowing in on.”

He also noted that much water consumption in rural areas stem from outdoor watering, and that higher density housing would reduce water use on a per-person basis.

Councillor Adam Etchart echoed traffic concerns.

“With all the increased traffic that we’re proposing I’m a little nervous about what’s happening there with what’s on the street right now and what’s coming, if this goes through.”

Councillors Mike Bhangu and Melvina White both objected to the High Density (R8) Zoning.

“There’s R8 in the surrounding areas and if we rezone this to R8 as well, what will the entire area look like at the end of it all?” said Bhangu.

“And for that reason, I will not be supporting this.”

Councillor White objected to the type of housing as well, which would offer residents subsidized rent as it would be designated as affordable housing.

“As much as I know that we need affordable housing and we need it badly, I really feel that this isn’t the area for it… it’s subsidized housing in amongst half million-dollar homes, and I just don’t think it fits into the area,” said White.

Mayor Brown said that while she understood the apprehension, she was eager to see the project move to a Public Hearing.

“There is a lot of high density going into this area, and it does make us all a little bit nervous, but we have looked at the OCP, which from north of the Nicola River to south of Irvine Ave. is mixed residential use, and if we look at that area now, it’s mainly single family housing… but I think, in the concept of our OCP, that this area can handle higher density,” said Mayor Brown.

“Now, there’s things that we have to fix, and we know that. We have to look at the roadways from Grimmett to Spring Bank and we know that’s also part of the OCP. We have to negotiate with BC Hydro to pull that roadway through. There are other roads that have to be fixed, and there’s roundabouts that we need on Voght St, those too are in our Voght St. Phase Two Plan that hopefully we get funding for this year, or if not this year then next year,” Brown continued.

“But, these will come together at some point in time. The water, we also have grants out and we’re looking for ways to find water. It will come together, I have no doubt that it will come together, but we have to continue to ask those hard questions and we also have to be able to assure the property owners that they aren’t going to be adversely affected by this subdivision, and I think I can clearly do that. Supportive housing is needed in the city, desperately needed, and I certainly would like to see this being taken to a public hearing because I think there are a lot of individuals who want to have their say in a public hearing and I think we as council need to hear that.”

When it came time to vote, the First and Second Reading of the OCP Bylaw Amendment which would change the land use designation from Future Development to Residential was carried four to three with councillors Etchart, Bhangu and White opposed.

The First and Second Reading of the Zoning Bylaw Amendment was also carried four to three with Councillors Etchart, Bhangu and White opposed.

A motion to direct staff to schedule a Public Hearing regarding the development was carried with Councillors White and Etchart opposed.

Morgan Hampton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Merritt Herald