A change will be coming to the land use by-law that will let residents in Abasand and Beacon Hill rebuild their homes exactly as they were before the fire or adapt if there are reasons they cannot replace their pre-existing homes thanks to a motion from the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee.
Member Marty Giles put forward the motion following a lengthy presentation from Terry Cooper, a lawyer with Cooper & Company, who spoke on behalf of the Abasand Rebuild Committee and a fulsome discussion that followed.
His motion is as follows:
“I move that the committee supports bringing directly to council for first reading an overlay amendment to the land use by-law that would direct that rebuilding of destroyed structures to pre-existing footprints will be permitted and that also sets out a range of options for rebuilding in cases where rebuild to pre-existing footprints is not feasible as soon as practical.”
Right now there are restrictions on the by-law put in place back in 2007 because of concerns about overloading the water and sewer system. Councillor Sheldon Germain explained those concerns are no longer valid and the restrictions were in the process of being removed before the wildfire.
“This was done in ’07, so we didn’t know anything about a wildfire. The reason we put it in place is we had a sewer issue in the lower town site, the south side of the river, we actually had backup issues. So, because of, at the time, we had to make sure that any development that was built on the south side of the river, we had the sewer capacity. That’s why this amendment was in there,” said Germain. “Unfortunately it’s still in there, it hasn’t been repealed.”
This overlay amendment will remove the restrictions on development and will go further than that because it will allow people to replace exactly what was lost in the fire so they don’t have to worry about making changes.
The change would also go another step further by allowing people who owned duplexes or townhomes before the fire to build small single-family detached homes on their narrow lots if their neighbours are unwilling or unable to rebuild the same structure together that existed before the fire.
The overlay amendment will also benefit homeowners in Waterways who are looking to rebuild once the hurdle of the flood plain mitigation is cleared and development in the area is given the green light.
Legal staff are preparing the by-law change for council’s consideration at next week’s meeting and from there it will take three weeks to go through the approval process which requires public engagement and resident feedback to make sure the change is done fairly.
The changes were inspired by a meeting between RMWB staff and legal counsel and the Abasand Rebuild Committee who are working with lawyers, including Terry Cooper, to make sure residents are able to rebuild.
“I’m not a resident of Abasand so people on that committee sort of tolerate my presence and let me help out wherever I can,” he said by way of introduction, explaining they work with the goal of getting everyone home. “I think that’s what everyone is focused on and so some of my comments today are not going to be exclusive about Abasand because when we formed our committee we said, ‘you know what, if we can find out something that’s going to help with Beacon Hill or Waterways or push something for that community or ask a question for that community, we’re going to do that’ and our goal initially in bringing people home was to get good information.”
That goal has expanded and at Wednesday night’s meeting Cooper presented members with detailed information about the land use by-law and zoning in the areas of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways and what changes would be necessary to pave the way for an uncomplicated rebuild of their homes.
Caitlin Hanly, a member of legal counsel for the RMWB, said she and her staff had already received that information and are using it to prepare the overlay amendment they’ll present at council next week.
“The conversation that was had with Mr. Cooper was eye-opening for a number of people at the municipality and brought some issues to light that we may not have recognized previously and so there’s been efforts, a lot of efforts with the planning department, the legal department, the recovery team, to work hard and put something in place and so I can say that an overlay is almost drafted, not almost drafted it is drafted, it’s in the works. And if the recovery committee felt inclined to do something about that today you might pass a motion that the overlay should go to council when it’s available,” said Hanly.
And that’s exactly what the committee did.
Hanly specified it will take about three weeks to approve the by-law change because after first reading the change has to be advertized to the community twice to encourage their feedback on it. Then council can hold the second reading, public hearing, and third reading all together at a separate council meeting.
Cooper said that if this motion is approved it will clear the way for hundreds of homeowners he’s either spoken to or engaged with on some level who were putting off plans to rebuild because of some level of uncertainty.
It could also mean that more demolition work is undertaken by homeowners who would have been inclined to take a buyout if they thought they would be unable to rebuild because they would be able to replace their pre-existing homes.
Germain pointed out the work achieved on the advice of the committee made up of residents from the community of Abasand shows the value of those residents mobilizing and advocating for their own interests.
“One of the things this committee has talked about is the importance of community committees or community groups and we think it’s so great that, organically, you’ve done that in Abasand and now we hope that other neighbourhoods follow the same lead and I am sure the committee would be prepared to support that work and we appreciate that piece,” said Germain.
Community organizations that wish to make a presentation to the WBRC can do so by submitting a presentation request form available online.
If you want to access the site plans for your pre-existing homes you can email the RMWB at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on demolition and rebuilding is available on the Wildfire Recovery page online.