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Richmond churches resist ‘draconian’ property plan

Richmond is going ahead with a bylaw that the local clergy call a human rights violation. Under the proposed measure,…

By Lena Smirnova , in Business , on November 25, 2010 Tags: , , , ,

St. Paul's Parish is ready to speak against the proposed bylaw if it goes before the council in December

Richmond is going ahead with a bylaw that the local clergy call a human rights violation.

Under the proposed measure, religious institutions in West Richmond that want to sell or rezone their land for residential use would have to hand over a large portion of their revenues for affordable housing.

“This is a human rights issue against churches,” said Ken Clausen, a member of the Brighouse United Church. “If this doesn’t go against religious rights and freedoms, I don’t know what will.”

City staff proposed the affordable housing condition to ensure that religious institutions continue to provide community benefits after rezoning.

“An assembly shouldn’t be able to do just what it wants,” said Richmond’s policy planning manager Terry Crowe.

Church representatives argue that the bylaw will only shift the burden of building affordable housing from the provincial and federal governments.

The proposed bylaw has been under review for a year.

City officials told TheThunderbird.ca that they plan to put the revised bylaw to a council vote in late December or early January.

The plan to call the vote surprised the nine church representatives involved in the consultation process. The city has not made any concessions, they said.

“We’re frustrated because every time we meet it’s the same. They’re polite. They’re just not listening,” Clausen said.

Richmond officials said they are willing to revise the bylaw, but future consultation may be limited to email exchanges.

Cost of development

The Richmond Gospel Society is one of the religious groups affected. It sits on two acres of centrally located land that no developer wants to buy. The property went up for sale five years ago.

Current bylaws require the land to be kept for religious or educational use. Churches and schools can’t afford to buy it, said Curtis Green, director of the Richmond Gospel Society.

Reverend Margaret Cornish of St. Alban's Anglican Church blesses pets at the St. Francis service (Photo courtesy of Randy Murray)

The new bylaw would open the bidding to all developers, but there is a catch.

Developers would need to build some low-cost homes or make large contributions to Richmond’s affordable housing fund before they can rezone the area. Developers already pay into the fund, but they would need to pay more to build on land that belonged to a church.

“It’s a draconian measure,” said Francis Wong, the head of finance at Vancouver’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. “It is totally unfair.”

In the city’s view, it is fair to expect that some profits from developing the land would go towards homes for the less well-off.

“Churches give a lot of [community] benefit now, but they will also get substantial financial benefit if they rezone,” Crowe said.

The Gilmore United Church sold its seniors’ residence units at a market price. The revenues were enough to build a new church on the property.

Paying for affordable homes

Religious leaders say that affordable housing should be the responsibility of the provincial and federal governments.

Related: How much governments spend on social housing

“The city needs affordable housing, but it is not the churches’ responsibility to provide,” said Jeff Germo, pastor at the Richmond Baptist Church. “It shouldn’t be imposed.”

The Guardian Angels and St. Mary’s churches in Vancouver voluntarily built social housing on their properties. The Anglican diocese sponsors low-cost houses for seniors and handicapped adults in Metro Vancouver.

The reason that Richmond’s three Anglican churches have not built affordable housing is because they don’t have enough land, said Ian Robertson, volunteer at the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster.

Bureaucratic process

Pastor Gary Roosma of the Emmanuel Christian Community and his wife Jenny were not aware of the city's consultations on the bylaw

The dispute over the bylaw dates back to Nov. 23, 2009. The Anglican diocese received a phone call from its realtor at 4 p.m., saying there would be an important vote in the Richmond City Council in three hours.

The vote, it turned out, was the rezoning bylaw. The proposal came before council despite the lack of public consultation.

The city was trying to clarify an existing policy and “didn’t see the need at the time to consult,” said Richmond’s senior planner June Christy.

She defended the council’s procedures, saying residents could find out about the vote by looking at the agenda posted on the city’s website.

In the end, the council returned the proposal to city staff for review. Richmond’s planning department organized three working group meetings since the vote, but many of the 35 sites that the proposed bylaw would affect didn’t know about them.

Richmond staff and religious institutions need to work together to achieve a solution, Dana Westermark said. As president of Oris Consulting, he is working with Richmond’s united churches on their plans to build affordable housing.

“This bylaw would kill any chance these groups may have had to achieve this,” he said.

“The city must rethink their position from the ground up and the [institutions] need to define their issues and start to work toward a solution rather than merely reacting to the city’s position.”