City council is well equipped to make an unbiased decision on a proposed affordable housing development even though the city itself is providing the funding and had a hand in initiating the land deal, said Mayor Nolan Crouse.
The land at 70 Arlington Dr. requires council’s support for a rezoning that would pave the way for a sale between the local Protestant school board and Habitat For Humanity. The proposed project would see 58 townhomes built on the 1.2-hectare site.
If approved, the $840,000 sale price would be covered by affordable housing money that the city received from the province. This aspect doesn’t sit well with some opponents of the project, especially when coupled with the common belief that the city itself suggested to Habitat that it bid on the land during an RFP process in 2008.
“To me it’s a biased decision,” said Akinsdale resident Gerry Kress, who has done exhaustive research into the timeline of the deal and has been on the forefront of pointing out areas of conflict.
Kress doesn’t feel the current council can give a proper public hearing into the issue because it was council that initiated the deal to begin with.
“If they approve it, it’s going to be a biased decision because they have so much at stake in the background,” Kress said.
Habitat For Humanity Edmonton CEO Alfred Nikolai confirmed the city contacted him in 2008, which prompted a meeting with “a couple” of council members, the mayor and some planning people to discuss the Habitat model.
The city later offered to provide grants to help Habitat buy land in North Ridge and the school site in Akinsdale, Nikolai said.
Nikolai thinks city council should “be applauded and cheered” for taking the initiative to make affordable housing happen without raising taxes to do it.
“If I was a taxpayer in St. Albert I would write them a letter of thanks because for $840,000 they’re getting a $10-million project immediately,” Nikolai said.
Protestant school board chair Morag Pansegrau said Habitat’s bid didn’t specify where its money was coming from, nor did it suggest that successful rezoning was likely if the bid were chosen.
“We had no conversations. It was just like any other offer, we open the tenders and see what the offer is and make a decision which one to accept,” Pansegrau said.
When the land sale was first announced in 2008, Crouse said council would not simply “rubber stamp” the required rezoning, and would actually turn down a proposed development if there was enough opposition.
On Thursday, Crouse said he and his assistant have combed through his communications and haven’t been able to confirm that the city did in fact initiate contact with Habitat. He said those who are fixated on such details are “groping for controversy.”
“Everyone is groping for evidence of wrongdoing,” he said, adding that the nature of city council is to deal with situations in which there’s conflict.
“Is it a conflict of interest that we are the decision-makers and the funders? That can be seen that way but council members are in conflict — not conflict of interest — in conflict often. We have to decide whether or not we’re going to raise our own taxes … give ourselves raises,” Crouse said.
“We’re always in conflict. That is the nature of the job and the Municipal Government Act allows us to make decisions that actually affect our neighbourhoods and ourselves.”
Coun. Len Bracko had a similar take on the situation.
“It’s council’s responsibility to approach different businesses, groups to make things happen. If we wouldn’t, we shouldn’t be on council,” he said.
Coun. Gareth Jones also believes council can make an unbiased decision.
“I think the due process has happened. There’s been public input meetings coming up to the public hearing,” he said.
“We get both sides of the argument from people in the community and we’ll have to make a decision based on that.”
The public hearing that will decide whether or not the development will happen is scheduled for March 15 at 5 p.m. at St. Albert Place.
The proposed development is a partnership between Habitat For Humanity Edmonton, a non-profit, and private company Apollo Developments.
Many area residents have expressed a myriad of concerns, including the opinion that the complex is too dense for the space, would bring too much traffic and street parking and unjustly take away green space.
The school board has held the land since the 1970s and wants to sell because it doesn’t need the location for a school. Two previous sales have failed due to neighbourhood resistance.
If council doesn’t approve the project, the city would retain the $840,000 in funding it has committed, for use toward other affordable housing projects.