Sackville Town Council heard a sometimes-passionate, 54-minute debate last night on the pros and cons of building 36 luxury, seniors’ apartments on part of the former United Church property in the heart of the downtown business district.
After nine citizens had spoken against the proposed three-storey building and five, including developer John Lafford, had spoken in favour, council gave preliminary approval to a bylaw change that would make the project possible.
However, construction cannot go ahead until council gives its final approval in two more votes expected next month. Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken and Councillor Allison Butcher said they needed time to consider the comments they heard during last night’s public hearing. Councillor Bruce Phinney, who has said previously he would vote against the new apartment building, was not present at the public hearing.
Erna Duchemin led off the debate saying that even though the new apartment building would generate tax revenues for the town and the province, it would also destroy the beauty and serenity of the green space near the Centennial Monuments and Swan Pond off East Main Street.
“We need to look ahead and think of the worries this building will cause such as accidents and problems with traffic flow and how it will affect the beauty that our tourists and we enjoy now,” she said. “Why lose this green space and the grove of birch trees for a huge structure that destroys the view for us all?”
Meredith Fisher, who campaigned along with Erna Duchemin to save the United Church, recalled the bitter divisions that occurred before the church was demolished in September 2015.
“Those feelings still linger on. We don’t want our town to be divisive,” she said.
She argued that it’s important to preserve the sweep of green space that was designed and paid for by Sackville’s forefathers and that still makes the town special.
“This is what attracts people to want to live here, to visit here, to want to stay here, to work here or to send their children to school and study here,” Fisher said. “I just can’t imagine how a community would support the decimation of this beautiful, iconic, signature space in our town.”
Eric Tusz-King told the hearing that as a member of the United Church congregation, he negotiated with the Laffords when they bought the church property in 2012.
“We went through a lot of grief and there was a lot of emotion in our congregation on that issue,” he said. “But we realized that nothing stays the same and we needed to move on and I think that’s a little bit of what needs to happen in this conversation as well.”
Tusz-King added that while he has a strong attachment to the birch trees that would be destroyed if the new apartments are built, he also realizes they will die naturally within the next 15 years and besides, the land is going to be developed anyway.
“The zoning is only for a portion of that land that’s going to be used,” he said. “They [the Laffords] can still use the other part of the land for another…building and the birches would be gone…so, again that’s not a particularly good argument.”
Tusz-King said he uses the Lafford parking lot at Main and York Streets every day and while he acknowledged it’s busy, he doesn’t mind that.
“I like people, I don’t like living in isolation, I don’t get worried by that,” he said adding that the area is not nearly as dense as it is in larger cities such as Halifax or Toronto.
“So I would recommend personally that council go ahead with this approval,” Tusz-King concluded. “There’s not enough justifiable reasons not to go ahead.”
Tenants and landlords
Ardyth Rose identified herself as a tenant in a Lafford building on Waterfowl Lane and called the Laffords wonderful landlords. She supported the new building saying that the more seniors’ apartments Sackville has, the better.
Wayne Harper told the hearing that he wants to rent one of the luxury apartments adding that it would provide beautiful views for its tenants, attract more people to Sackville and add to the town’s tax base.
When his turn came, John Lafford said he’s been hearing from a lot of people who are excited about the new building and although a few are opposed to it, there are many in favour.
“What we say, we’ll do,” Lafford said. “Yes, we’re going to cut those trees, a good portion, yes. But we will replant as many as are cut and that is a pledge,” he added telling council, “And if that site can’t fit all those trees that we take down, then we will plant them at other locations designated by you people.”
Tim Reiffenstein, a geography professor at Mount Allison, questioned the planning department’s reliance on figures more than a decade old when it says the town needs more density in downtown residential neighbourhoods. He also said he’s concerned that the new building would add more traffic to the downtown area.
“When I’m downtown, I’m mainly on foot and the only places I’ve ever been in fear for my life, the only place I’ve ever been hit is walking by the exit of that parking lot on York Street,” Reiffenstein said.
Susan Dales, who said she moved to Sackville from Mississauga, Ontario, estimated that the new building would probably have about 65 people living in it.
“To provide housing for these 65 individuals,” she said, “is it worth losing all the surrounding beauty and putting it at risk? I don’t think so, beauty is so hard to find and beauty is what makes Sackville, Sackville.”
After the public hearing, Councillor Bill Evans moved first reading to send the requested bylaw change to the next stage. He said it didn’t necessarily mean he would vote for the project on second and third readings, but he also made it clear that council should not be passing judgment on the new apartment building itself only on whether it conforms to the town’s existing bylaws.
“When people buy private property, it’s their property and they get to make decisions,” Evans said. “All they have to do is follow the rules,” he added.
“I’m not making a statement about what I like or don’t like, I’m doing my job.”