Council levels zoning infraction at warming centre

Coun. Zielinski: ‘If we don’t uphold our own laws, we’re on a very slippery slope going forward’

Grand Forks council may have revealed a release valve for the pressure the city has seen with regards to the warming centre at 7500 Donaldson Drive, after Coun. Rod Zielinski suggested that the city’s bylaws do not permit overnighting in the “light industrial” zone where the property sits.

What began as an extreme weather shelter last winter, added Coun. Christine Thompson, has morphed into a full shelter with lease extensions that have allowed it to operate months past its 100-day operation period as a 24/7 facility for people experiencing homelessness.

“There is no use other than a ‘watchman’s quarters’ [that permits] overnight accommodation,” Zielinski remarked to council Monday night. He then put forward a motion that council instruct city staff to enforce the bylaw at 7500 Donaldson Drive.

“If we don’t uphold our own laws,” said Zielinski, “we’re on a very slippery slope going forward.”

Mayor Brian Taylor was the only member of council to vote against the motion.

As of press time, a city official said that staff have yet to confirm Zielinski’s interpretation of the bylaw, but will analyze it and then determine how to proceed. The first step, the official said, could be to notify the landlord of the bylaw infractions and ask them to correct the situation. However, Jim Kennedy, a representative for the building’s owner and cannabis store company Weeds Glass & Gifts, said earlier Monday that if the city does not issue a variance to its bylaw governing the distance between cannabis stores and community spaces, then the warming centre could be allowed to stay on the property.

“That building will be either put up for sale or leased, depending on what scenario it is that comes forward,” he said.

“We can also expect that, if we do not get the variance, the warming centre will actually have a place to stay for as long as they need to until they do find another location,” Kennedy told council Monday.

The statement was interpreted as a threat by those present who neither wanted a cannabis store nor the warming centre in the spaces. Kennedy insisted that it was a matter of business. Currently, Whispers of Hope Benevolence Society pays $1,800 per month in rent. Without that money, Kennedy said, owning the building would not make financial sense.

Regardless of whether the overnight bylaw is enforced or if Weeds gets its variance to run a cannabis shop closer than 100 metres from a community space, the warming centre will need to find a new place to move to.

One member of the gallery asked council if they were comfortable with the fact that enforcing the “light industrial” zoning bylaw at 7500 Donaldson could lead to the clients of the warming centre to disperse through the community, losing what services the facility did offer, such as a clean space for people using drugs.

“I think this is a sad day that we’re making this decision,” Taylor said to council colleagues. “What we’re facing is a bit of an unknown,” he added, noting that because the facility is run by a local charity and BC Housing, the city has little input beyond bylaws in how or where the service operates.

On June 10, council instructed city staff to organize a meeting between the city, Whispers of Hope and BC Housing (the crown corporation that funds the warming centre), in order to secure a plan for the future of the warming centre facility when, inevitably, the current tenants lease expires or are asked to leave. As of yet, no meeting has been scheduled, the city’s corporate officer Daniel Drexler confirmed at Monday’s meeting.

In a June 21 email, Whispers of Hope indicated to the Gazette that “we encourage the community to build upon and improve current services, rather than eliminate them.”

The statement continued to say that the organization hopes to eventually hand the warming centre off to “an organization more directly associated with housing initiatives take on and continue this project.”

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