Plans to relocate some 40 homeless people to a vacant farm property near Breslau is meeting with stiff resistance from residents there. Woolwich Township officials are scrambling to deal with the situation.
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.
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 Friday, 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.
Under a proposal sent to the township Friday ahead of a planned appearance at township council June 1, ABTC plans to service the land, relocate the homeless people currently sheltered at Lot42 to the site and develop a farm operation.
“We are now planning to build a unique residence that will not only continue to assist the residents to stabilize with housing, health care, methadone treatment where appropriate, and addictions counselling, but will also provide on-site work opportunities through the development of agricultural projects that include community and market gardens and vertical container food production,” reads a report provided by ABTC volunteer Jeff Willmer, the retired former Kitchener chief administrative officer.
“Initial development proposed for the summer of 2021 includes building an access lane, bringing power into the site from the road, drilling a well, installing a septic system and building an agricultural shed
“Once this infrastructure work is complete and the project is incorporated, our goal is to establish a community of approximately 30 to 40 residents (agricultural worker trainees) on this site and begin to prepare the land for food production and establish a vertical container gardening system.”
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 about three weeks now to vacate the site.
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, 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.”
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.
A Breslau-area Facebook page was alive with postings Friday.
“I can’t see how Breslau is a good fit for this. There is no running water, no bus routes, not a single amenity in walking distance. There isn’t even sidewalks in that area. If a bus route were to come to Breslau, it wouldn’t be going down Spitzig. I can’t see how the organizers think this is a positive location,” wrote poster Karen Augusto.
“Nobody said a word about it till Wed., and Thursday hydro was already on site meeting with contractors. It seems very sneaky and moving ahead way too fast, like it was planned behind everyone’s back,” noted Todd Graff.
Woolwich officials have been receiving calls and emails from concerned residents, as well.
Vink noted the township has received no formal application related to the proposed use of the Spitzig Road site.
The group did submit a request Friday to address council next Tuesday, however.
In the absence of an application, the issue is more political than technical at this point. For Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz, just how feasible the idea is remains a big unknown at this point.
“I guess the group has to sell it to council and to the community, both,” she said, noting there are no details available just yet.
“It’s all new to everyone.”
Future discussions will have to look at the project’s suitability, including the logistics of putting people who need services in an isolated area that has no access to the likes of transit or even a grocery store.
“I think that has to be all part of the discussion, because the issues are real,” said Shantz.
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