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Homeless appeal to Woolwich

Rushing to find a new location to set up shop, a homelessness group wants Woolwich to bypass planning protocols to allow for a move to a piece of vacant farmland near Breslau.

A Better Tent City (ABTC) has been providing shelter in tiny homes at a former industrial event space, Lot42, in Kitchener. With the sale of the property, the organization has to vacate by June 20. Having secured the use of a 55-acre farm parcel owned by the Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, the group has been moving quickly to set up shop on the property, which has no services such as water or sewers.

Addressing Woolwich council Tuesday night, ABTC volunteers and supporters made an emotional appeal, calling on the township to act quickly to grant the organization an exemption from the normal planning process, which could take months or years.

“The township could take a regulatory approach to this, talking about due process and so on, or you can take a compassionate approach,” argued ABTC volunteer Jeff Willmer.

“We could move in this month if the township is willing to be compassionate.”

Breslau residents, however, were not receptive to the appeal, calling on council to reject the idea based on concerns for safety, property values and the shelter’s incompatibility with its surroundings, which includes a school on an adjacent property.

In both oral presentations via video conferencing and dozens of written submissions, residents pointed to the lack of basic amenities on a somewhat isolated farm property.

“This location is not appropriate due to the lack of resources required to support this community. There is no nearby public transportation, access to grocery, food establishments and other social services. In addition, the location is inappropriate due to its proximity to a school,” wrote Breslau resident Peter Dasilva in a written submission.

“While we know homelessness is an issue that society needs to address, young children and teens should not be consistently exposed to the associated behaviours.”

“I am concerned about the proposed tent city for the Spitzig Road location for so many reasons. I have had the opportunity to visit the site at Lot42 where the current site is and I have to tell you that I was horrified at the site of people actively using drugs in front of me and garbage stacked nearly to the roofs of the huts. I saw this with my own eyes,” wrote resident John Heaton. “I would encourage anyone who is interested in having this site in Breslau visit the current site to get a feel for how this is operating currently.”

Proponents painted a different picture, however, stressing the feeling of family the community of residents has formed now that they have a home rather than being homeless.

Laura Hamilton, of the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region, for instance, noted ABTC and its residents have acted to correct issues as they arise.

ABTC plans to service the land, relocate the homeless people currently sheltered at Lot42 to the site and develop a farm operation. That would include building an access lane, bringing power into the site from the road, drilling a well, installing a septic system and building an agricultural shed big enough to house 40 of the tiny homes at the site today. The building would also incorporate toilets, showers, a kitchen and laundry facilities. The plan also calls for the introduction of farming both as a food source for residents and a seasonal market garden.

“There may not be a perfect site in this region, but the Spitzig Road site is a beautiful opportunity for A Better Tent City, or for A Better Tent City to evolve into A Better Tent City farm,” said Wilmer.

ABTC is currently located at an industrial site on Ardelt Avenue in Kitchener, where the former owner allowed the group to set up shop. While the use was not permitted, the city last July granted a one-year exemption. The owner, Ron Doyle, subsequently died of cancer earlier this spring, and the property was sold last month. The group has less than three weeks now to vacate the site.

The situation may not be that pressing, however, as another ABTC supporter, Fr. Toby Collins of St. Mary’s Church in Kitchener said the group could relocate temporarily to nearby St. Mary’s High School for the summer prior to the start of the next school year.

Even so, the temporary measure is likely to fall outside the normal timeline for a formal planning application. At first blush, the property located on Spitzig Road north of Highway 7 isn’t suitable for the proposed use, says Woolwich’s manager of planning.

“It’s staff’s position at this point that it doesn’t conform to the township official plan,” said Jeremy Vink May 28, referring to Woolwich’s overarching planning document. “Definitely, there are some planning issues that have to be addressed.”

Currently zoned for agricultural use, the property would accommodate a single-family residence and a farm operation, subject to servicing and restrictions such as setback requirements for farm buildings such as barns, he explained.

Setting up a number of tiny homes, or modified garden sheds such as those currently in use, wouldn’t be applicable.

“There are regulations around accessory buildings such as garden sheds,” said Vink.

Whatever the circumstances, there’s a process that has to be followed if the project is ever to see the light of day, noted David Brenneman, the township’s chief administrative officer.

“The group has been advised that due process needs to be followed,” he said last Friday, adding that ABTC will have to meet all of the same obligations as any group looking to carry out a development project, including all planning and zoning requirements.

“We certainly have indicated to them that there is a process they would have to follow,” he stressed, noting that floating the idea prior to approaching the township could be something of a “trial balloon.”

At Tuesday night’s meeting, he suggested staff would be pushing for a formal planning process rather than a quick exemption for the project.

Responding to a question from Coun. Patrick Merlihan, Willmer said the group would prefer to be granted an exemption, but would follow the regular planning process if directed to do so. Thus far, there has been no formal application, with ABTC’s plans for a quick move catching the township off guard, as it did residents.

Through the St. Mary’s Parish in Kitchener, ABTC was offered the land owned by the Hamilton Diocese. Breslau residents were quick to respond this week when the group began making contact with neighbours about the proposed use of the vacant land. As with comments on the video stream Tuesday night, residents took to social media to decry the idea. A petition against the project quickly garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

The issue will be back on council’s agenda June 8.

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