By Steve Hubrecht

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A plan to convert office space in the Athalmer industrial park into employee housing has stirred up controversy. 

Invermere council voted to give the building owner a temporary use permit (TUP) for the proposed staff housing, but other business owners and managers in the area voiced their opposition to the move. The application came from Invermere Mayor and Home Hardware owner Al Miller. He made the application in his role as Home Hardware owner, not in his capacity as mayor, and he was in fact absent from last week’s Invermere council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 12 when the TUP was discussed.

Home Hardware purchased the building, which once housed local wood framing and manufacturing company Dusk Building Systems Ltd.

“Because we have a shortage of rentals for our staff and others, we would like to turn the front office area into shared living with four bedrooms. We will be leasing out the shop portion and land separately. I would like to use the TUP for this, and see how it all works out,” wrote Miller in the application to council. “If it does not work out as planned, we can always use the renovated area for an office in the future. But right now, I need to get people into a safe home.”

During the meeting Invermere planner Rory Hromadnik outlined to council that the accommodation would be “essentially dorm-style, with four bedrooms, a shared bathroom and a shared kitchen.” Hromadnik noted that even though the Athalmer industrial park is not zoned residentially, some caretaker suites have historically existed there, not all of them legally. He added the district received two letters opposed to the application (both from other industrial park business owners) and one in support. The one in support was received after the deadline for inclusion with council meeting documents, and so was not available to the public at the time of the meeting.

The first of the two letters opposed came from Lakeland Contracting owner Rick Luyendyk, who wrote “I feel this is a mistake. It would be like the hostel in Athalmer which seems to generate transients and crime. Having more people wandering around an industrial area, especially at night will increase the crime which is already increasing. If it happens renters have kids, it would be very dangerous for them. Keep residential residential and industrial industrial.”

The second letter opposed was from Dusk Building Systems general manager Sheldon Mose, who wrote that “in conversation with other local businesses in the area, no one is happy with the idea of bringing more permanent residents to the area. More people in the area only increases the already significant problem of vandalism and stolen property. The added stress of full-time residents showering and living on the existing weak infrastructure would be a concern. There is a shortage of industrial space in town, use it for its intended purpose.” 

Mose added “However, I see that work has already begun on the conversion, so I’m sure that this proposal will be carried through. All while our proposal for more industrial development land is met with opposition.”

The last comment is in reference to an application Dusk Building Systems, which has moved to a new location in the Athalmer industrial park, made earlier this year, to lease Crown land next to its new site in order to expand its wood manufacturing operations. Invermere council did not assent to the move, citing environmental concerns. The matter came up again this summer at a committee of the whole meeting in July and at the time, when asked about the situation, Miller said staff were engaging with the province to discuss next steps.

Another Athalmer business owner — Warwick Enterprises Ltd. owner Dave Tomalty — was in the audience during the Sept. 12 meeting. He outlined many of the same concerns as Luyendyk and Mose did in their letters, and added that many other business operators in Athalmer also feel the same.

“We’re really opposed to allowing any residential space in the industrial park. We really do have very limited commercial space there,” Tomalty told council. “It’s (the four bedrooms) different than the caretaker suites. This is staff accommodation in Athalmer for a business that is not in Athalmer (Home Hardware is located on Shuswap Band land by the crossroads).”

Tomalty in particular expressed skepticism that a TUP for four people would translate to just four people living in Athalmer. “We know that just doesn’t happen. It will start with four and before you know it, you’ll have 20. You just can’t control it,” he said. “Look at AirBnBs. How have we done with limiting AirBnBs?”

He cited security risks, noting concern over this was almost nonexistent among Athalmer business owners decades ago, but has been on the rise in the past few years. 

Tomalty also pointed to safety concerns for the residents who would be living in the industrial park, noting that it is simply not designed as a place for people to live (“if you are familiar with the industrial park, you are familiar with the risks,” he said). And he also said that, to be fair to everybody, there should be consistency in zoning and land use, saying that people who bought land for commercial purposes in the industrial park likely assumed it would stay a commercial and industrial area without permanent residents.

“If I went and put up a wood shop right next to the Station Pub, things would explode,” said Tomalty, adding the same principle should apply the other way around. 

“It is an interesting conversation,” said Invermere councillor Gerry Taft. “Compared to many industrial parks, ours is very light industrial. There are businesses in our industrial park, such as a crossfit gym that you wouldn’t find in a heavy industrial park. Unfortunately a lot of space down there is used, it seems, just to store boats . . . there’s a lot of junk sitting down there and not a lot of employment being generated from it.”

But, on the other hand, Taft did share some of Tomalty’s concerns, saying he could see how an employee might suddenly have a partner living with them, or perhaps a kid or pets. 

“It’s hard to argue against staff housing, but I do agree you don’t want to have 12 people hanging out there. We need to make sure that in trying to solve a problem we don’t create another problem.”

In response to the concerns, Invermere councillors made some amendments to the TUP, specifying that the TUP has a strict limit for four people only, each in one bedroom, and those four people must each be employed by the building owner, or associated businesses, through a formal staff rental agreement. 

The TUP is for three years, but councillors agreed to review it after one year, in case issues do arise.

With those amendments, councillors voted unanimously to approve the TUP.

“The housing situation is dire. These four spots in the industrial park are four more than we would otherwise have. Those four people will be really grateful,” said Invermere councillor Theresa Wood.