Battle brews between business and town

Property owners cry foul over 2013 zoning change designating industrial lands for residential use


A battle over zoning is heating up in Princeton’s business community, as a group of property owners grapples with zoning changes they say are hitting them hard in the pocketbook.

Last week Princeton CAO Rick Zerr announced the town will undertake a public review of the Official Community Plan (OCP) in 2016, which could be the first step in reversing zoning decisions that changed the designation of 27 industrial properties to residential use in November 2013.

In an interview with The Spotlight Zerr said the OCP review is reopened routinely every few years, and is not coming about because of recent letters to the editor in the newspaper, or because of complaints the town has received from business property owners.

“I don’t care what’s motivated it,” said Susan Robinson, who owns Ace Hardware with her husband Pete on Burton Avenue. “I think what counts is that they are taking a second look. It’s a little slower than we would like to have it nonetheless.”

Robinson said the municipality did not do enough 18 months ago to notify property owners about the now-controversial zoning changes.

“I said [to the municipality] you may have met the letter of the law but you have not met the needs of the community. Every business owner I spoke to was not aware of the changes except the former mayor.”

For some property owners, like Scott Cerny, an OCP review in the future is not enough to address the financial damages threatened by the 2013 zoning changes. He said he stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because his property was rezoned from industrial to residential.

“I’ve got a piece of property right now that’s advertised for sale but there’s no way anyone is going to look at buying it because it will be residential for selling.”

The property, on Burton Avenue, is the former location of a feed and seed business, which Cerny sold in 2012 and is currently leased to the Ministry of Transportation.

As an industrial property the land was worth approximately $230,000, but Cerny estimates it would net only $30,000 on the residential market.  Under the 2013 zoning by law, a property can only maintain its industrial designation as long as it is attached to the existing business.

“It’s a touchy subject when you talk about people’s investments,” he said. “I’m not waiting for 2016. I think we need to get legal action happening, personally.”

The seeds of the current conflict were sown in 2008, when council drafted a new OCP designating industrial properties along Burton Avenue, Grande Avenue, Similkameen Avenue, Stoat Street, Old Hedley Road and Highway 3 as residential. Those intentions were implemented five years later in a zoning bylaw. According to Zerr – despite the fact that the town advertised each step of the process as required by BC legislation – no one from the business community came forward with concerns.

“You would think they would be a little more engaged in the process.”

Zerr said there were at least two public meetings held to discuss the OCP, and the zoning bylaw was passed at a public hearing where four or five people from the community attended.

While Zerr was not on town staff in 2008 he said he believes council wanted to change the zoning to address concerns from homeowners about property mix, and to encourage businesses to move to the community’s industrial park. “I think that was a consideration, yes.”

Zerr said he has since spoken personally with four property owners who object to the new zoning, and said the town is willing to work with impacted businesses. “I would suggest that people who have those concerns take them to us. We are willing to listen.”

So far, no property owner has made an official request for an amendment to the OCP or the zoning by law, Zerr said. He declined to speculate on how council would deal with such a request.

“If you are asking me if I’m willing to work with a business or an applicant on a specific issue, of course.”

According to Robinson “I think it has to go further than that…It’s not good enough to come back and have the conversation. I think the town needs to stand down.”

Robinson and her husband first learned their properties had been rezoned last year when she visited the town office to enquire about business licensing for a new venture.

“I was told by the clerk that there had been a zoning change and if I had done my due diligence I would have known that,” she recalled. “I was stunned…I was stunned and I was angry.”

Robinson met with both Zerr and Mayor Frank Armitage, and petitioned the BC Ombudsmen who investigated and confirmed the town followed the law placing advertisements to publicize the proposed zoning changes.  Under provincial legislation municipal councils are not required to give  individual notification of zoning changes if the by law impacts more than ten properties.

Robinson estimates the businesses affected by the zoning employ at least 100 people.

“It was careless on the part of the town, in my mind,” said Robinson. “In my opinion they have totally missed the boat.”

Robinson said property owners are starting to work together to find solutions. “We are starting to get together and to talk, talking to experts in zoning…We are starting to poke and prod and we are not the only ones.”