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Woolwich rejects homelessness group’s bid to fast-track Breslau site

There’ll be no fast-tracking of a bid to relocate a homeless enclave to Woolwich, putting the ball back in the hands of A Better Tent City.

Meeting Tuesday night, councillors voted unanimously to have the organization submit a formal application to use a piece of farmland near Breslau as the home for some 40 previously homeless residents.

A Better Tent City (ABTC) currently provides tiny homes and a range of services for some 50 people on the site of a former event space, Lot42, in an industrial area of Kitchener. Following the sale of the property, the group has to vacate by June 20.

ABTC has appealed to Woolwich council to waive normal planning procedures to fast-track the use of a vacant farm property on Spitzig Road. The proposal sparked a huge backlash from Breslau residents opposed to ABTC setting up shop in the area. Woolwich officials had been inundated with emails and calls in the past couple of weeks, both before and after a June 1 presentation to council by ABTC. A number of residents submitted written comments prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, with others speaking out as delegates via videoconference.

The 55-acre site was offered up by the Hamilton Diocese of the Catholic Church as a new home for the group, which was operating in Kitchener under a temporary-use designation due to expire next month. The land, which is rented out to a farmer and planted with crops, contains no structures and no services. ABTC is proposing to drill a well, install a septic system and run electricity to the site.

Council’s decision to stick with due process would require a formal application for changes to the township’s official plan and the current agricultural zoning on the land. That process would take a minimum of six to 12 months, which doesn’t fit ABTC’s timeline. The group has some relocation options for the summer months, but needs a longer-term site in place before the fall, said Jeff Willmer, a volunteer with the organization.

In an interview last week, Willmer said a council decision to stick with a formal process would force ABTC to look at other locations given the long turnaround time, which he noted could be lengthened by appeals and legal challenges.

“We can’t afford to wait. We have to be looking at a range of other options,” he said June 4. “If they want us to do due process – if on Tuesday Woolwich says ‘go through due process’ – we’ll have to explore other options. We need a site for this coming winter.”

Due process is exactly what council opted for.

A motion put forward by Coun. Larry Shantz called for ABTC to go through the regular process in pursuit of its proposal, acknowledging the homelessness issue requires attention from municipalities in the region.

“I support the call for due process,” said Coun. Patrick Merlihan. “We need to stay on track. The residents have been heard – they’ve spoken loud and clear.”

Residents’ complaints were not simply NIMBY-ism, said Coun. Scott McMillan.

“We’ve taken those complaints seriously.”

The stance put an end to ABTC’s request to interpret the current zoning as allowing for the organization’s residents to be viewed as a “family farm” operation, with Willmer calling for that use on compassionate grounds.

Whether that ends the bid will depend on ABTC submitting a formal application.

That has yet to be determined, Willmer said Wednesday, noting the prioirity is finding a site in the near-term.

“We’re looking at options for a site where we can locate for this coming winter.”

From the feedback heard by council, Breslau residents would be happy if the proposal is dropped.

In a presentation Tuesday night, resident Richelle Lanting was among those decrying the “manipulative tactics” by ABTC in trying to have the township bypass the usual process.

After an unauthorized start in April of 2020 at the Lot42 site, ABTC was granted a one-year temporary use by the City of Kitchener, so it knew a year ago that it had to find a new home, she said, noting there should have been no real desperation or sense of urgency given the long lead-time.

“The need to relocate has been there from the beginning,” she said. “A Better Tent City should not be in a position of emergency in looking for a new location.

“This troubling emergency situation for the residents of A Better Tent City was not created by Woolwich Township and the Breslau residents asking for due process, or simply saying ‘you deserve a better place than we have to offer.’”

Many residents challenged the suitability of the site and the financial viability of the operation given the expense of servicing the land and establishing the farm operation ABTC has proposed. That list included Breslau-area farmer Fred Wagner, representing the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture.

“Please do not abandon the normal planning process,” he asked, adding that considering ABTC a “family farm” would be a disservice to actual family farm operations.

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