By Trevor Busch
Targeting the town’s recent reversal over relocating a fire hall, local developer Edwyn Ellingson is criticizing town council for decisions and policies that he believes are anti-growth and contributing to economic stagnation in the community.
Heading a delegation at town council’s Nov. 26 regular meeting, Ellingson suggested that council’s decision to rescind an Aug. 20 motion relocating the town’s fire hall to 50th Street near 52nd Avenue was short sighted.
“In the public hearing on Oct. 9, 2018 council was swayed by the voices of a few outspoken individuals who ultimately convinced you to backtrack on the proposed plan to relocate the emergency services building to a more central location. Many of the views that I present to you tonight are shared by others in the community, and in the business community. I was very impressed with council and administration for moving forward with the plan to relocate the emergency services building. This has been a project that has been talked about and stewed over for several years. It appeared to me that council was finally prepared to make the bold move and do it, even though there would be some push back from a few town residents. I was happy that there was consultation with town residents, and multiple options were explored. Once the final location was agreed upon, it looked like we were getting this project off the ground.”
The Alberta Building Code in 2006 addressed High Intensity Residential Fires (HIRF), identifying a need for fire departments to respond in under 10 minutes more than 90 per cent of the time. As a result of this decision, towns with fire departments unable to achieve this threshold within their response areas would require new buildings to have sprinkler systems installed, increased setbacks or changes to windows and nonvented soffits.
Improving the response times of the town’s volunteer fire service, which could have a corresponding effect on the development community with regard to decreased input costs, has been a bone of contention for developers with properties currently outside the radius of a 10-minute response time.
“For myself, for administration, and for many residents and business owners in the town, it seemed as if it was a done deal,” continued Ellingson. “The final council meeting and hearing was assumed to be a formality, and I as many others were excited by the widespread benefits of relocating the emergency services building.”
Ellingson detailed quicker response times, making Taber a safer place, utilizing the current fire hall as additional space for public works, and the ability for local developers to follow standard fire codes rather than HIRF guidelines in constructing new homes, as critical advantages.
“The HIRF implications to relocating the emergency services building cannot be underestimated, and they’re far reaching. The disadvantages of relocating the emergency services building are few and of little significance.”
Attacking the public opposition that was voiced on Oct. 9, Ellingson was dismissive of the arguments that citizens employed during the hearing, which saw double-digit numbers and standing room only inside council chambers.
“Many of the statements made by these citizens were based on misunderstandings, or a general lack of understanding of the reasons why relocating the emergency services building was in the town’s best interests. I would like to ask why council gave so much credence to those who opposed the relocation when most of them were ill-informed? In my opinion, you should have taken that opportunity to set the record straight, inform the public as to the reasons and the benefits for relocating the emergency services building. Sadly, you chose to give too much weight to the opinions of this small group, and ultimately halt any plans to proceed with this initiative.”
In late 2016, Ellingson was tapped for membership on the town’s HIRF Committee to evaluate the fire hall issue. The committee also included two other developers, Travis Bareman of Bareman Construction and Willi Thiessen of Terramesa Inc., as well as three members of council and representatives of administration.
The HIRF Committee met three times to compile information from previous studies and present research into a HIRF report that outlined the case for relocating the fire department. Presenting a variety of options, the committee would later recommend council approval of relocating the fire hall to a location within a 500 square metre radius of the 50th Street and 50th Avenue intersection. This recommendation would later be accepted by town council.
Other alternatives examined but not recommended by the HIRF Committee involved scenarios which would have called on the local development community to foot between 35 and 70 per cent of the bill for the relocation project through special offsite levy fees.
The committee’s report would also conclude the total cost of relocating and constructing a new fire hall would not exceed $2.5 million. Previous reports, including one presented in 2015 by FireWise Consulting, pegged this cost at between $5-$6 million. Recent information reviewed by council has suggested the HIRF Committee’s cost estimates were overly optimistic.
Ellingson contends that council’s Oct. 9 reversal has cast a pall over the local investment community’s willingness to consider new projects.
“This decision has already impacted land development in Taber, and the willingness for businesses to look at Taber as a place to set up shop. I’ve spoken with the land developers in Taber, and they are fed up. The land developer for Westview has flat out said he will not subdivide or do any further development in the town until the increased HIRF regulations are removed. This is an individual who at the present moment has over $5 million in lot inventory sitting and waiting. Any development that is happening in town right now ends up with builders playing the game of trying to make a house fit on a lot without having to increase setbacks or add sprinklers to it. The developers and builders are tired of the hassle of trying to make it work, and are severely limited with house design options.”
The community’s lack of affordable housing options, according to Ellingson, is seeing major industrial or value-added agricultural players look elsewhere for favourable investment opportunities.
“Additionally, the lack of affordable housing in Taber is of major concern to any large business wanting to set up in Taber, and sadly the HIRF restrictions add that extra little bit of money and hassle to the equation that tip the scales in the wrong direction for our town. How many lost opportunities has the town foregone as a result of council’s inability to be decisive and get this project started? If you combine the affordable housing problem with a list of other concerns that stem from decisions council has made, and you end up with what appears to be a culture and environment where Taber is closed for business, and closed to wanting to grow our community. I understand that this council, and other councils past, have no intention of discouraging our town from growing. But in all your efforts, you have unintentionally done that.”
Ellingson argued the focus of recent councils on socially-conservative issues while making controversial decisions has created a situation where people outside the community view Taber as a non-inclusive and unwelcoming environment.
“Sadly, the world outside of Taber sees a very different picture of the people and the place that Taber is. National and international press now monitor our little town to see what controversial policies and decisions council will come up with next. Even just last Friday (Nov. 23) I was speaking with a friend that used to live in Taber, and this individual was called randomly from a radio station in Victoria asking about the ongoing debacle of pride flags, community standards bylaws, and benches in the cemetery. Decisions and policies — or lack thereof — in regards to these issues, and more, have painted the Town of Taber — and likewise its residents — as non-inclusive, closed-minded, and even xenophobic. You add this to the fact that it is just as expensive, or even more expensive, to build a house here than it is in Lethbridge, and there appears to be little reason for individuals and families to want to relocate here.”
Many factors combine to keep individuals from desiring to live as well as work within the boundaries of Taber, added Ellingson.
“This is abundantly evident when you look at some of the large employers in this area, Horizon School Division, Lantic, Lamb-Weston, Pepsi, even the Town of Taber to a certain degree have a significant number of their work force come in from out of town. Smaller businesses rely on staff from out of town, too. Now, I understand it’s unrealistic to expect everyone who works in Taber to live here, but the gap here is just too large. I’ve talked to a number of these employees, and most of them flat-out refuse to live here. They cite reasons such as a dumpy downtown and general unattractiveness, no obvious house price advantage, lack of shopping and services, but paramount is the general feeling that they don’t think the town is welcoming and inclusive.”
Indecisive leadership and decisions which paint the community with a negative brush have combined to enhance the problems the town was already facing, argues Ellingson.
“I know there are many factors at play when determining where a person lives and works. But council has done little to tip the balance in our favour, and from an outsider’s perspective, there appears to be little incentive to want to live here. The economics of keeping a small town alive and vibrant are getting increasingly difficult, and council needs to be looking for ways to show the outside world all the great things our little town has to offer. Regrettably, council has instead delivered years of indecisiveness over the emergency services building, spent countless dollars wasted on studies that never come to fruition, and created policies that turn people away. In times like these we need town council to be proactive and decisive, to look down the road, to put your biases aside, and do what is best for the town.”
Ellingson requested council reconsider its Oct. 9 decision, which he claimed has already impacted his own business strategy regarding a potential multi-family affordable housing development.
“I am extremely hesitant to proceed too far with this proposal, not because I believe council won’t voice support for it, but because I believe council’s actions on other matters will prevent it from being successful. I am aware of other businesses that share similar feelings, and don’t feel comfortable investing in Taber given the current situation. I’m hoping that I will see council make some immediate changes that will boost the confidence of businesses and individuals interested in investing and growing our town.”
In receiving Ellingson’s presentation for information, Coun. Jack Brewin referenced what he calls a “silent majority” of citizens that need to show open support for the fire hall project.
“I’d like to thank Mr. Ellingson for presenting what he did. I wish you were here at that meeting that night. That’s all we need is a silent majority that’s not speaking.”