Explained: Revelstoke winter homeless shelter proposal and temporary use permits issue

We explain the relationship between the proposed downtown overnight shelter for homeless people and the temporary use bylaw update that will enable it, and explore other temporary housing projects that are waiting in the wings for the temporary use bylaw to be in place.

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A homeless man walks through Woodenhead Park towards the Columbia River in this file photo from December, 2018. Shane (not shown) says his substance use issues led to his being homeless in both Williams Lake and Vernon. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Two separate things — a homeless shelter and a “temporary use permit” bylaw update that will enable the shelter to open this winter — came together at the council table on Nov. 12 in a debate that lasted over 90 minutes.

If this was a story about temporary use permits (TUP), you likely wouldn’t be reading this — the terminology itself lulls your click finger to sleep. The TUP bylaws are a standard tool in municipalities’ bylaw toolbox — most B.C. municipalities have them. In fact, Revelstoke already has a similar process, it’s just that it’s out of date and therefore out of sync with the provincial rules. (It’s never too often to remind readers the hierarchy here: the provincial government creates the legal framework and municipalities need to comply if they want to play ball.)

The other issue at play is plans for an overnight “temporary winter shelter” in the basement of the Revelstoke United Church, the landmark heritage building at the corner of Mackenzie Avenue and Third Street in the downtown Revelstoke core. The winter shelter would offer those without a roof over their heads a place to sleep in facility in the basement. The plan is to open doors in the evening and turn everyone out in the morning. For background on the proposal, read our stories here and here:

Councillors hear concerns about proposed overnight homeless shelter in Mackenzie Avenue church

The issue is that in order to put the shelter in the church, the city needs to use the temporary use permit bylaw in order to consider the overnight homeless shelter, meaning council needs to update the TUP bylaw first.

In effect, the discussion of the TUP bylaw was a proxy discussion for the temporary shelter idea. (Of course, the TUP can and will be used for other things, and there are a few projects waiting in the wings for its approval — more further on in this story.)

With the stage set, council deliberated for over an hour and a half about the idea at a special public hearing on Nov. 12.

I will spare you the blow-by-blow of discussion at the hearing (verbatim, it would run about 50 pages, I’d guess — you can always watch it in the video embedded below). In the end, Councillors Steven Cross and Cody Younker voted against the temporary use permit bylaw, meaning it passed with five others in support.

Cross argued that, in practice, the bylaws are often used to steamroll the concerns of adjacent property owners — in their very nature, these bylaws are pressed into service when whatever is being proposed isn’t allowed under the regular zoning bylaw.

“How do we give our citizens faith that if we empower this law, [that it won’t be used inappropriately]?” Cross asked. “I have a lot of concern about the abuse that’s happened in other communities,” he said. “Not listening to the people most affected is my worry here.”

Younker cited “too many examples of the bad that can happen” among reasons for rejecting the bylaw.

After some Q&A, city staff, the mayor and other councillors expressed support for the bylaw, including that: it is used for many things, not just the homeless shelter; it’s a standard bylaw that all municipalities have; council has final say on any TUP proposal, so council can reject inappropriate ideas; and that updating the bylaw would allow for other things, such as temporary worker housing projects or other things unrelated to housing, like allowing an art festival to take over public space for a few days.

Also relevant is a TUP lasts for a maximum of three years and can be extended for another three years, but would require council approval at both points. Council can also issue permits for fewer than three years — such as a year for a touchy proposal, or a weekend for a special event.

The bylaw has now passed third reading and will be forwarded to provincial authorities for approval before coming back to council for final adoption.

Neighbours express concern

If you felt for anyone in the room, it was for the owners of adjacent properties, who were in attendance to give submissions during the hearing (advocates for the homeless shelter were absent). You can imagine they’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else.

Anyone paying attention has seen this narrative unfold in B.C. many times in recent years: a project designed to help the housing situation runs up against opposition from neighbours who feel they will be negatively affected. In 2019, society’s ability to hold thoughtful, nuanced conversations about complex issues being what it is, the conversation is reduced to a black and white issue: those in favour claim the moral high ground, while those in opposition prepare themselves for a tarring with the NIMBY brush. (A closer inspection of proposed legislation, policies and plans is drowned out by the din.)

Andre Cadieux, an owner of the Caribou House vacation rental located kitty corner from the church, put it this way: “I am worried about my business across the road,” Cadieux said. “It puts you in an awkward spot trying to oppose something that helps the needy.”

Bob Dale owns the McCarty House vacation rental right across the street from the church. (The McCarty House was built by Frank McCarty, Revelstoke’s first mayor. In addition to other business interests, one of his sources of income was operating temporary worker housing for the itinerant workers needed to keep the bustling town stocked with labour during the industrial and mineral rushes. How times have changed, eh? From behind his impressive waxed mustache, he watches over the council proceedings via his official portrait on the council chamber wall.)

Dale argued that the TUP is poor policy that would allow all kinds of end-runs around the current zoning rules, leaving neighbours like him swamped in the wake.

“Non-compliant implementations can pop up anywhere,” Dale said. “It encourages underfunded, half-measure initiatives that can’t be achieved [any other way].” He said that in an attempt to help one group, council was creating uncertainty for others. “Regulatory certainty is about business investment in the community.”

Also speaking against the TUP was Jerimiah Sappington, who identified himself as a resident of Third Street.

“There is inherent value in knowing … your neighbourhood is not going to change,” Sappington said. Addressing past city planning staff comments that the TUP would help get worker housing on the ground more quickly, he said: “In other jurisdictions these do get abused.” Sappington expressed concern the TUP could lead to residential homes being converted into temporary worker housing. He recommended addressing the housing need in the city bylaws, not through a temporary use bylaw. “If you don’t like [the current process], fix the actual process you have.”

Adrian Giacca, who is interested in developing a tiny home community in Revelstoke, presents to Revelstoke city council on Nov. 12, speaking in support of the temporary use permit bylaw. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

One person spoke in favour of the TUP. Adrian Giacca, who has been featured in our sister publication Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine for his drive to get a tiny home community up and running in Revy, spoke about the bylaw’s ability to facilitate innovative housing solutions. (See the link below for our previous story on the proposed tiny home village.)

A tiny home community in Revelstoke?

Other projects in the works

I spoke with the city Director of Development Services, Marianne Wade, after the meeting to find out about other plans that may be waiting for the TUP to be in place before entering the public realm.

Wade said that she was aware of three projects that were in some stage of development. When asked for specifics, Wade said the proponents hadn’t made formal applications, so she wasn’t in a position to say.

However, she said that one concept was to locate modular worker housing in an industrial area on a temporary basis. What the other two may be is uncertain, but, the proposed tiny home village seems also to be in the mix.

Wade said that none of the projects were BC Housing projects.

Analysis

If you don’t recall councillors campaigning on a platform of updating the TUP, your memory is good. The situation is the same story which has been repeated many times in the past decade of Revelstoke municipal politics: the city’s bylaws are out of date and need updating because they do not reflect our new realities: the housing shortage, a growing tourism sector, deteriorating affordability and more. The hot real estate development sector means planning staff is busy just treading water dealing with applications and has difficulty finding time to work on long-term projects. Then, something real-world comes along and can’t go any further until the city gets its bylaw and policy ducks in a row. In an effort to keep the wheels turning, a workaround is proposed. (And those are just the ones that persevere past the initial discouraging feedback from city staff and continue on to council). From there, it descends into a mixed, muddy debate from which nobody emerges without getting dirtied up.

The problem with updating the bylaws on an ad hoc basis is each individual bylaw is connected with other planning documents and needs to sync up with them under an interconnected legal framework. The right way to go about it is start from the start with the overarching official community plan bylaw, not reverse engineer lesser bylaws on an ad hoc basis. The long-needed official community plan update is underway, so you can’t blame council for that. But the reality is it’ll be a year or two at least before it is signed, sealed and delivered. In the interim, the day-to-day pressures remain and the unsavory choices land in council’s lap. Sometimes it’s developers clamoring for their right to stake a claim in our resort-model real estate gold rush, but in this instance it’s the silence of those sleeping rough under bridges and cedar boughs on the fringes of town, pulling their blankets tighter to buffer against the first wet snowstorms of the year.