By Trevor Busch
The latest in a string of delegations squaring off against town council over plans to construct a new fire hall, it leveled heavy criticism at that elected body’s handling of the affair during council’s regular meeting last week.
Following closed session discussion on Aug. 20, council directed administration to move forward with the purchase of three properties, including Taber Church of Christ property and two residences – 5303 50th Street, 5219 50th Street, and 5215 50th Street.
On Sept. 24, Dave Witwer, a neighbouring resident to the proposed emergency services location was in attendance to present his concerns and those of other adjacent homeowners, many of whom attended the meeting in support. Council’s agenda also included a dozen letters from area homeowners opposed to the development at that location.
“The reason I’m here is to oppose this council spending a lot of tax dollars purchasing land and having a new emergency services building — a fire hall — constructed,” said Witwer. “I’m also here to oppose the location selected for a new fire hall. As you people are all aware, there’s been a substantial amount of opposition to council wanting to build a new fire hall in Taber. Opposition to the need for a new fire hall, and a lot of opposition to the sites picked.”
Despite public scrutiny, with the exception of an open house held in February 2018, recent council discussion of the issue has been conducted almost exclusively behind closed doors.
“The way this matter has been handled by council is very concerning to me,” continued Witwer. “This town council is making way too many decisions behind closed doors. For example, prior to, or during the recent August 20 council meeting, council held in-camera secret sessions to pick this new site for a fire hall with absolutely no prior consulting of, or any information being provided to adjacent homeowners to this site. Absolutely nothing.”
Witwer owns and resides at 5003 52nd Avenue, a corner lot which faces 52nd Avenue, but partially fronts on 50th Street. One of the lots in contention where the town intends to build – 5215 50th Street – is right next door to Witwer’s property and faces his backyard. A former town councillor, Witwer was elected in 1992 and served until 1995, when he lost his seat in an unsuccessful bid for mayor.
In its Aug. 20 decision, council also directed administration to begin the process of subdividing the church lands and consolidating all three purchased parcels, as well as creating a Direct Control Land Use District to provide for an emergency services building to be developed on the property.
“Before August 20, the town had already secretly made arrangements to purchase the land it required,” said Witwer. “Also at the August 20 council meeting, council directed administration to begin the process of subdivision and rezoning required to accommodate an emergency services building. Later, about September 1, after most everything required to complete the subdivision and rezoning was already in motion, adjacent landowners — and only adjacent landowners — were mailed a subdivision notice from the Town of Taber that had incorrect dates and information in it, with no mention whatsoever that the intended use was for a fire hall. I personally learned of the plan to build a new fire hall by reading the local newspaper (The Taber Times) on September 5, and I live right beside it.”
As part of the Sept. 24 agenda, letters were received from Dave and Donna Witwer, Harold and Susan Charlton, Dale Collett, Corny and Tina Fehr, Brad and Amy Gray, Lois and Evelyn Hacking, Janet Hill, Forrest and Lise Lester, Kim Mackay, Jason Munn, Joshua and Kimberley Pepneck, and Don and Kim Span.
“When they realized what was happening, almost all the adjacent landowners wrote letters to the town opposing the selection of this site. Everybody was upset about it, this includes myself, my home is directly across the lane from the proposed fire hall,” said Witwer.
Several campaigns organized by citizens opposed to development of a new fire hall have made the rounds in the community, most recently a petition circulated by Forrest Lester in early spring 2018 which gathered 958 signatures and was presented to council on April 9. Lester’s petition was later deemed insufficient under the Municipal Government Act for failing to provide necessary information established under Sec. 225 of the MGA.
“In my opinion, this council — possibly because of strong opposition to the previously mentioned sites, purposely has not informed the general public, especially the adjacent landowners, about their plan to build a fire hall on this site,” said Witwer. “Myself and many other Taber residents that I’ve talked to are of the opinion that a new building for fire and ambulance purposes is a total waste of taxpayer dollars, especially when two residential lots have to be purchased and the houses removed or demolished. There’s a substantial amount of money required for this action, and could be spent way more effectively.”
Another petition organized earlier by residents in proximity to one of the town’s favoured locations – townowned property adjacent to Dr. Hamman and St. Pat’s schools – had also been presented to town council. Prior to this, a delegation representing residents from Signature Point had issued a statement to town council signed by residents opposing a potential fire hall location in the vicinity of the Taber Curling Club.
“These petitions are not legal, but they are a strong indication of public opinion that council should listen to the people that they represent,” said Witwer.
Proximity to a number of schools and school zones was a troubling aspect of the location now favoured by town council, added Witwer.
“To pick the site for a fire hall right in the area of five schools seems ridiculous to me. There’s a lot of children in the area, walking the streets, riding bikes, going to and from the schools, playgrounds, soccer fields and ball diamonds. It appears to me this council has totally disregarded the issue of these children’s safety. Also baffling to me is why council would want to place a building housing both fire and ambulance services on 50th Street, where funeral processions pass by the front door.”
The town’s present fire hall location is functional, argues Witwer, and if upgrades are needed for this facility, so be it.
“I would suggest our present location is suitable, and it working just fine. If improvements to the building are needed, they could be done right there. To locate a large, eleven-metre tall emergency services building in the middle of a residential area, obviously there was no consideration whatsoever for the mostly long-term residents of this area.”
In closing, Witwer asked council to reconsider its decision.
“Along with the proposed new fire hall, and the construction of it, will come a huge increase in traffic, noise, lights, sirens, all of which are extremely annoying, especially in a residential area, and will affect the quality of life. Council’s duty is to represent the people who elected them, not to have secret meetings and then make decisions with no update. You seriously need to reconsider this matter.”
No member of council made an immediate reply to the delegation’s concerns, but a procedural issue would lead to some audible grumbling among the delegation’s supporters in attendance at the Sept. 24 meeting.
After voting to accept the delegation’s presentation for information, Witwer had informed council that others from the delegation had hoped to speak at the meeting. This hope would be short-lived, as CAO Cory Armfelt put a stop to any further input from the public.
“I would suggest that the matter is now closed. We will be having a public hearing on this matter at the next council meeting. There was a motion passed at this council meeting to hold a public hearing at the next council meeting, so if that individual would like to come up and speak at that time, that’s fine. But when Mr. Witwer sat back down, and we were all under the assumption that his presentation was over and you called the motion and it was voted on, that ceases the information for this evening.”
A public hearing on the subdivision and rezoning matter (Direct Control Land Use Amendment Bylaw 21-2018) is now scheduled for town council’s Oct. 9 regular meeting.
Conversations regarding the potential relocation of the emergency services building in Taber have been ongoing since 2009. Following closed session discussion in July 2017 town council had voted unanimously to set aside $1.5 million for a new fire hall building from the William Ferguson estate, with the fire hall to be dedicated and named after William Ferguson.
No dollar figures or property values were included in the Aug. 20 resolution, but council also instructed administration to investigate building prices through a request for purchase. The resolution did not include any specific dates or a timeline for when it intends to break ground on the new facility, or host an open house for the public.