By Steve Hubrecht
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With the Columbia Valley’s population booming, home prices skyrocketing and the area’s longstanding rental housing crunch have reached crisis proportions in the last few years, local officials — not to mention local home builders — have been doing everything they can to increase the valley’s housing stock.

In recent months, however, a major hurdle has emerged, which is hobbling efforts to create new housing or buildings — be it affordable housing, high-end housing or commercial or institutional buildings. What is this hurdle? A staff shortage at BC Hydro has led to half-year delays on all kinds of new builds.

When constructing a new home, or a new building, a BC Hydro representative must visit the site and officially outline to the developer what needs to be done in terms of underground electrical infrastructure. The problem is that lately, just getting that BC Hydro representative on site can take many months.

Local developer Richard Unger brought the matter up at a recent Invermere council meeting, saying that BC Hydro is, “holding up development…it’s literally six months just waiting for a call back from them” and noted he’s talked with other developers who are in the same boat.

Invermere council members and district staff explained that they are aware of the issue and have tried to expedite things, by sending letters. Councillor Gerry Taft agreed with Unger that “it is holding up projects. It’s a problem” and added that, from what he understands, BC Hydro is drastically understaffed and the staff remaining are completely overwhelmed.

“We as (District of Invermere) staff have been informed that BC Hydro is operating at a minimum (response time) of 30 weeks, which is a shock, because that is more than half a year,” said Invermere Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Young. He added that with recent population growth, Invermere is “doing its very best to streamline building approval processes…but we’re being a little hamstrung by a large third party that we all depend on.”

“It’s not ideal,” Invermere Mayor Al Miller told the Pioneer, speaking after the council meeting. “We’ve had comments recently from provincial officials saying that local municipalities are slowing things down, making it hard to build enough housing. But there’s nothing further from the truth. What we in fact have is a Crown corporation that we rely on, that we need in order to do any development, and they are the ones holding things up. It really is a big factor at the moment, for any kind of new construction.”

Miller was sympathetic to staffing shortages, noting that every private and public employer in the Kootenay region has had trouble attracting and retaining employees in recent years, but said, “I have no doubt that BC Hydro staff are very busy. But I take exception to getting called out at provincial level for slowing down development, when a provincially run corporation is contributing to that slow down in a big way.”