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Building new subdivision in flood plain concerns some on council

The property is currently zoned River Valley Conservation District and is also affected by the S1 (slump hazard) overlay and F1 (flood fringe) overlay districts

While most of city council was eager to see the development of an upscale residential subdivision in Wakamow Valley, others were concerned about building in a flood plain and approving the project so quickly.

Businessman Charles Vanden Broek wants to build the River Pointe Park subdivision just east of Seventh Avenue Southwest and north of the Moose Jaw River. The subdivision — composed of 100 housing units, including duplexes, houses and condominiums — would be built on 10 acres of developed land.

The property is currently zoned River Valley Conservation District and is also affected by the S1 (slump hazard) overlay and F1 (flood fringe) overlay districts.

Vanden Broek and his project architect gave a presentation to city council during its Sept. 21 regular meeting. The businessman and city administration have been working on this project for the past 18 months. Once city hall has given all necessary approvals, development could begin by 2022.

Council voted 5-2 to have city administration proceed with public engagement on this initiative and prepare a bylaw change for the Official Community Plan (OCP). The first opportunity for council to vote on the bylaw change would be Monday, Oct. 19.

Councillors Brian Swanson and Heather Eby were opposed.

A decision too quickly

“It looks beautiful. However,” said Eby, “for me, I know administration’s been looking at it for 18 months, so they’re happy with it because they’ve had lots of time, and they’ve talked with the proponents and they have all that settled in their minds. I haven’t had that much time.”

Some residents are also not feeling comfortable with this project, she continued. Meanwhile, this would be a “huge, huge, huge change” to the OCP, a document that council accepted in 2011 and that has kept the river valley pristine. She is pro-development, but this project made her uncomfortable, while the approval process was just too quick.

“This is a hurdle for me to get over,” she continued, pointing out there are still building foundations in the area where homes once stood before the 1974 flood hit. “Yes, there are advances in technology, but Mother Nature wins the day.”

The other stumbling block Eby had was how big the 81-unit apartment building would be, which she noted would be almost as big as the 95-unit Caleb Village building.

In response, project architect Alvin Fritz said there would be plenty of architectural features to mask the building’s size to make it attractive.

“I’m confident we will have a good outcome,” he added.

Building in a flood plain

Swanson expressed his frustration that city administration had kept council in the dark on this project for 18 months, while council members only become aware the week before during a planning session. His constituents expect him — an elected official — to be aware of such things.

The idea that this particular area would only be affected by a one-in-500-year flood is not true, Swanson continued, as he has seen it underwater before.

After the big flood of 1974, all levels of government entered into a property purchase program whose purpose was to remove homes in the flood-zone area, with the city given money to buy homes in Happy Valley and Spring Creek, he explained.

The municipality continued that program in November 1987 after the federal and provincial governments pulled out; between November 1987 and October 1988, the city purchased 52 properties for more than $2 million.

“Not allowing residential development in flood-prone areas is sound community planning. It is the norm just about everywhere,” he said.

Swanson then held up a map of the river valley area with different flood zones and the houses that once stood there. He pointed out the millions of dollars spent to remove those homes were well invested since there has been little disruption during subsequent floods.

The councillor thought it was unrealistic that bringing in tonnes of dirt to build up the affected area would prevent future floods since “nature is bigger than all of us.” He also thought council would be liable for reversing this effective long-standing policy, while allowing this project would lead to other requests to build in flood fringe areas.

Project’s flood study

The proposed development would be constructed in a flood plain, something that concerned Coun. Crystal Froese. She explained that her parents ran the River Park Campground decades ago and were hit with four floods, forcing them to leave their home.

There have been recent floods in that area, where huge chunks of ice the size of cars have been carried down the river, she continued, while wondering what Fritz’s plan was to create a barrier in the development area.

“Some of those (ice chunks) were literally the size of cars and four feet thick that came out of the river,” Froese added. “From the campground, it took out an entire (river) bank that no longer exists … .”

The river along this development is much deeper than the campground area, said Vanden Broek. All the houses will be constructed to the 1:500-year flood mark, while there will not be any basements added as per existing bylaws.

Froese thought it was right for the community to provide input, especially since the developer wanted the OCP changed.

“Democracy is something you have to create, which is what we are doing here,” she added. “We’re allowing the developer to come forward and have the community provide input and decide what they want us to do. This will change the (future) of the river valley.”

Wakamow Valley Authority

The Wakamow Valley Authority (WVA) board received most information about this project only when the rest of the public did — on Sept. 18, when the council agenda was released, said general manager Todd Johnson. City hall asked the board in April to comment on a picture of the proposed development and send in a letter with concerns.

Fritz addressed those concerns earlier in the meeting during his presentation.

Rece Allen, WVA board chair, expressed his concern that 136,000 cubic metres of fill — or 55 Olympic-sized swimming pools — would have to be added to raise the area so it wouldn’t be affected by floods. He thought it was presumptuous for council to change bylaws and proceed when there were still other studies to perform. He urged council to take a wait-and-see approach.

“We’re thrilled to see how they’ve taken a lot of extra steps; it’s not like they’re trying to throw down houses miscellaneously,” Allen replied. “But we have a lot of concerns because that’s what we do as a board.”

Comfortable moving forward

The Water Security Agency is creating a new flood map for Moose Jaw, which should come out soon, said Michelle Sanson, director of planning and development. The developer is aware of this and has agreed to work the new map into the existing hydrological study.

While city administration has recommended this project move forward, council can wait for that report before changing the property’s designation.

“We are comfortable at this point moving forward. Everything that has been brought to us has been favourable,” Sanson said. “We are definitely willing to keep working with the developer through the rest of the reports … before they would get their actual development permits.”

Sanson added that the first opportunity for council to vote on a proposed bylaw change would be Monday, Oct. 19

Mayor Fraser Tolmie thought it was refreshing for council to get in on the start of this project — which helps it make decisions — considering council normally comes in on the tail end of such developments.

“I’d rather have this information upfront and know that the due diligence that’s being done and the expertise that’s been brought to this concerning this area (is happening),” he added.   

The next regular council meeting is Monday, Oct. 5.