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Counter-petition effort underway to prevent lease deal

Proposed location: The Ross Street underpass would link downtown with the waterfront by allowing travel under the rail tracks. - James Murray/Observer
Proposed location: The Ross Street underpass would link downtown with the waterfront by allowing travel under the rail tracks.
— image credit: James Murray/Observer

A community organization is taking municipal council to task over a proposed 10-year lease linked to the potential construction of a Ross Street underpass.

The Committee for a Strong and Sustainable Salmon Arm (CASSSA) is circulating a petition in an attempt to get the 10 per cent of the electorate (1,361 residents) needed to prevent the municipality from moving forward with a lease the organization views as a first step towards construction of the underpass.

Proponents of the underpass, however, say CASSSA is not giving the public all the facts needed to make an informed decision.

The city is currently in the midst of an alternative approval process, through which the electorate can register their opposition to the municipality entering into a proposed 10-year lease agreement, at $33,000 per year, for lots at 621 and 641 Ross St. NE (on the north side of the train tracks). The stated purpose of the lease is to use the lots for parking or some other public use, including as a staging area for the construction of the Ross Street underpass, estimated by city staff to cost between $7 and 9 million.

If the lease is approved, the city will receive from the lessor, WH Laird Holdings Ltd. – owned by developer Bill Laird, statutory right of way along property on both sides of the tracks, including a road dedication the city would also acquire through a lot between Shuswap Park Mall and the CP Rail station.

Conditions of the lease include: 15 parking stalls on the leased lots would be reserved for the lessee’s use, and the city would be responsible for property taxes.

According to city corporate officer Corey Paiement, however, the city is statutorily exempt from paying property taxes.

CASSSA spokesperson Bill Grainger says the organization did an analysis of public safety at the existing railway crossings. CASSSA used data collected by the city to determine that five minutes is the maximum wait time for an emergency vehicle to cross the tracks and, in nine out of 10 trips, there would be no wait at all. Subsequently, Grainger says the organization is not satisfied that public safety currently justifies a $9 million capital project.

CASSSA also takes issue with committing any tax dollars towards a project that may or may not be supported with federal and provincial grant money, prior to doing any sort of analysis as to how an underpass might impact the downtown.

“You don’t go into that without presenting it to the public, show why is the underpass needed, a really good analysis, how it could affect the immediate area,” said Grainger, adding that a project like the underpass would come at the expense of other projects. He suggests the city should first verify that an underpass is indeed a priority in the minds of the electorate.

“I don’t see a need for it right now,” said Grainger. “It would make it nicer for the land owners and developers down there… of course, that’s who’s pushing at city hall. There’s a few councillors who take that ball and run with it. So, that’s what’s happening in my mind.”

Laird says unobstructed access to the waterfront has been discussed and supported by Salmon Arm for years and, currently, the only option remaining is at the north end of Ross Street. He says that in order to further consider this option, the city first required the necessary road allowance which was not made available by the property’s former owner.

“Council is being prudent by acquiring the right of way prior to spending any money on the proposed underpass,” says Laird, noting council has stated construction of an underpass would go to referendum.

Laird values the road dedication the city is to receive at $230,000. As for the cost of the underpass, he says the cost to Salmon Arm taxpayers will be substantially less, offset by federal and provincial funding, as well as funding from CPR. He adds their contributions will be added to the $660,000 already collected by the municipality in development cost charges.

Mayor Nancy Cooper and Coun. Chad Eliason are also concerned the public has not been properly informed about the lease, and what the city stands to gain.

Cooper says the lots the city hopes to lease are already being used for parking, which demonstrates the need.

“Honestly, if we started charging for parking over there, I’m sure we could make enough every year to actually pay for it,” said Cooper, adding the lot could be used for boat and trailer parking.

As for an underpass, Cooper says it’s a high priority for council, and would help address her number-one concern – safety. But she emphasized the city would first have to gather all the necessary information before proceeding with a referendum.

Eliason says by leasing the property over 10 years, the cost is shared between current and future taxpayers. Furthermore, he adds, that could be offset in the long run by parking and, more importantly, by future development of the waterfront.

“One of the inhibiting factors of growth on the waterfront is the lack of a safe, secure crossing – especially for residential growth,” said Eliason

“There’s other factors but, if the city has a chance to spend, say, $2 to $3 million on infrastructure programs that are going to encourage commercial development and expansion, as well as residential development above it, then that’s something council has to take a look at.”

Electoral response forms are available at city hall, and are due by Jan. 10. Residents may also sign a form until Christmas at Gondwana Gallery on Lakeshore Drive.

 

 

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