Canmore town staff are recommending new measures to end the creation of employee housing in the town's light industrial zones.
Responding to a long-awaited retail gap analysis and light industrial and commercial land review study, staff recommended that council end the growing trend of employee housing in light industrial areas, specifically in the Bow Meadows Crescent region. During council's June 6 meeting, town staff recommended amendments to the town's land use bylaw and Municipal Development Plan to “discourage the provision of employee housing in industrial districts.”.
Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert said June 1 that while council has given staff direction through the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and land use bylaw when it comes to employee housing, there will be more clear guidance given to what has become a growing number of development applications in the area of Bow Meadows Crescent.
“What we’re seeing is a need in the community and some are making applications that are sometimes approved like Spring Creek employee housing and sometimes not approved,” he said. “It goes to an SDAB and some have been allowed on appeals and some have been denied. When we see this pattern, that’s when you need to provide greater clarity.”
Krausert said council was waiting on the study to return before making a further decision on employee housing in light industrial areas of the community.
But while council has waited, development applications have steadily grown and been put in the hands of council-appointed committees such as the Canmore Planning Commission (CPC) and Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB).
A May 18 SDAB hearing had 16 businesses speak in favour of employee housing in the Bow Meadows Crescent area. There were also 13 letters of support and more than 30 people in attendance.
The proposed 12 second-floor employee units that would’ve added 34 bedrooms at 100 Alpine Meadows were denied by SDAB, but comes after the board approved employee units at 127 Bow Meadows Crescent. CPC approved 12 employee units in May 2022 at 121 Bow Meadows Crescent.
Sky McLean, owner of Basecamp Resorts and applicant for the denied employee housing units at 100 Alpine Meadows, said clarity will help but it’s important to find a path forward to use all available space for housing and addressing staff shortages.
“It’s the heartbeat of your business right now. If you don’t have housing, you don’t have staff because if you think of all the businesses that were at (May 18) SDAB (hearing), we have staff at all different pay scales coming into Canmore, starting out and wanting to get going. It’s impossible to buy a house for less than a million dollars. It’s not financially feasible, so employee housing isn’t a temporary place, it’s a stepping stone into the community. It’s so much more than just temporary housing.
“At the end of the day, our community is bursting at the seams and we’re surrounded by mountains and parks and water. There’s just not this infinite supply of land, so we really have to maximize projects where we can. Putting a second floor in an industrial building for this purpose, to me, is a perfect solution. I’m hoping we can go in that path.”
Despite the growing high nature discussion on employee housing in the community, council has been silent on the topic.
In the hearings, the MDP, land use bylaw, Indian Flats ASP and council’s strategic plan were used by both the applicant and Town staff to request the application move ahead or be denied.
“I think it comes down to interpretation and depending on the interpretation council wants it may or may not mean a change to the MDP and possibly the LUB,” Krausert said. “Employee housing is a discretionary use in those areas, but we have what could be interpreted as conflicting guidance in the Municipal Development Plan. That’s probably what needs to be cleaned up.”
In a letter to the editor in the June 1 edition of the Outlook, the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association raised concerns about the lack of direction and guidance being given by council to Town staff.
“We urge council to promptly review the Canmore land use bylaw in relation to housing such as that proposed in the Bow Meadows area and render guidance to administration,” wrote BOWDA Chair Brian Talbot on behalf of the board of directors. “The interpretation of the Municipal Development Plan regarding both industrial and housing is in conflict and this needs to be rectified.”
“We implore council to act and provide explicit, consistent, and effective guidance to the administration to solve this problem. This should include setting realistic goals and implementing strategies to achieve those objectives. Although it may not be an easy task, it is crucial to ensure that all employees in need of housing eventually have access to adequate and affordable housing.”
At the May 18 hearing, speakers raised the desperate place businesses find themselves in when it comes to employee housing.
Dustin Taylor, the owner of Cascade Mechanical, emphasized the importance to provide “affordability and sustainability in staff retention.”
“The reality is, right now in Canmore, most business owners are kind of burning the candles at both ends because every person has the same challenge point and the same challenge point that’s been in front of us for the last 30 years.”
Bruce Marpole, the communications manager for Tourism Canmore Kananaskis and speaking on behalf of the organization, spoke of the desperate need for staff housing to support tourism-related businesses.
“We know our business partners are finding it difficult to hire and retain staff from entry level up to management positions. … Basic housing needs cannot be met, making it difficult to recruit and retain staff,” he said.
But while Krausert said they have two options of allowing or denying employee housing in industrial areas and the staff report recommends discouraging employee housing, council could direct staff to develop more specific regulations on employee housing.
The Town of Banff went through its own issues with employee housing in its industrial compound in the mid-2000s. The municipality found employee housing to be an opportunity and permitted it in 2002.
Rather than simply say yes or no to employee housing, the Town worked on establishing regulations in the area for employee housing and its 2014 housing strategy finetuned the regulations to develop housing in the area.
The greatest barrier, however, was found to be its isolation from the townsite. With an area redevelopment plan to take place in the coming years and a Roam transit route launched in the area last year, it’s expected greater connectivity will be established.
Banff’s 2014 Housing Strategy identified “housing in the industrial compound it makes sense for people to live near their work, and it makes sense for the town to maximize residential opportunities.”
The retail and light industrial study was part of the 2021 budget and a recommendation for economic development strategy and the Business Recovery Taskforce. It began in February 2022 and originally began solely as looking at the retail gap, but expanded to include light industrial and commercial.
The retail gap looks at the retail profile in the community, consumer demands, gaps and opportunities. The commercial and industrial land supply and demand inventory analyzed the approach for industrial and commercial lands.
Despite the study recommending the need to maintain the second floor light industrial space, businesses have repeatedly said the space is rarely, if ever, used for anything but storage and that employee housing addresses the desperate need for housing and short staffing.
At the May 18 SDAB hearing on 100 Alpine Meadows, Former Canmore mayor and MLA for the riding Ron Casey said in his experience – which included building more than 30 industrial condominium units – the industrial and commercial use in the area is largely only needed for the main floor, with second floor mainly used for storage.
“This is not a magic bullet. It’s not going to save the world. It’s not going to be the answer, but what it is is a start in the right direction. It’s part of a continuum of support that new people coming to this community can get,” he said.
Though the study didn’t specifically look at housing, it recommended against such use in light industrial space. However, throughout the staff report housing in light industrial areas was continually raised as not being appropriate.
“This recommendation, combined with an increasing number of development permit applications related to the provision of employee housing in light industrial districts, and the applicable language in the land use bylaw, has informed administration’s recommended motion,” stated the report.
It noted the area isn’t best suited for residential as well as it being precarious for people since it’s controlled by the employer.
“The authors of the study recommend against allocating any of Canmore’s limited supply of light industrial land for residential use,” a staff report stated. “While there may be short-term benefits in terms of easing housing constraints to allow residential use in these areas, administration is concerned with potential unintended consequences on community equity.”
The study found a retail trade area population of 34,551 and about 216,464 square metres of ground floor business space in addition to having “a very low commercial vacancy rate” of less than one per cent.
The study recommends the Town work with the business community on shared priorities, address housing challenges, encourage commercial nodes and retain and use industrial lands efficiently.
The Gateway at Three Sisters has been under development since being approved in late-2021, but faced numerous delays in planning matters as well as a Subdivision and Development Appeal Board hearing that delayed the removal and storage of topsoil and fill.
The Smith Creek area structure plan, which is waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeal, also has a commercial and light industrial component meant for Smith Creek and Dead Man’s Flats residents and would be along the Trans-Canada Highway.
The commercial district, according to the ASP but not mentioned in the retail and light industrial gap study, would be between three and five hectares.
McLean said moving forward, she hopes employee housing will be allowed on the second floor for industrial and commercial uses.
“It’s clear not just based on my opinion, but all the opinions of everybody who spoke at SDAB that employee housing is important,” she said. “As some of the speakers said, no one thing is going to solve the whole problem, but every little bit counts and this was one every little bit. It’s so hard for anyone to find housing.”