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New Westminster council approves EFry OCP application

The Elizabeth Fry Society received the first approval it needs for its planned expansion from city council following a lengthy and emotional public hearing that lasted past midnight on Monday.

The society was asking the city to change its Official Community Plan for two properties on Sherbrooke Street behind the organization's facility at 402 East Columbia from low-density residential to institutional.

The approval came early Tuesday morning after a public hearing that began Monday at 6 p.m.

However, the process has just begun for EFry, which helps abused and at-risk women. The society must still apply for the rezoning before it can go ahead with its plans for an additional 21,000-square-foot, four-storey building on the two lots, one of which is currently used for EFry parking while the other is a house that has been used as a rehabilitation centre. The new building would house 10 units of affordable housing, a day care, and the society's offices.

Councillors Chuck Puchmayr, Jaimie McEvoy and Jonathan Cote voted in favour, while Betty McIntosh was opposed. After sitting through the lengthy public hearing, Coun. Lorrie Williams recused herself from the vote, citing a legal opinion she had obtained that because she lives very close by she could compromise the integrity of the vote.

Coun. Bill Harper did not vote since he was acting as mayor for Mayor Wayne Wright, who was at his grandson's graduation.

More than 200 area residents signed a petition opposed to the OCP change, fearing it would not only take away single family dwelling stock it could lead to more applications for commercial development along Sherbrooke.

Council also heard from several society supporters, many of them former clients who have had their lives changed by Elizabeth Fry.

Puchmayr said Tuesday he isn't worried about the "slippery slope" area residents are concerned about. He pointed out all the homeowners on Sherbrooke were opposed to the plans, and they are the ones that would have to sell their properties to developers to begin any possible slide down the slope.

"What really swayed me is the parking lot is already owned by EFry. The house on Kelly Street was a drug rehabilitation home that housed 15 to 20 people," said Puchmayr, who admitted some of the stories from former clients brought tears to his eyes. "There's an extreme void for women in the lack of those services. Women with children, I can just imagine a woman with a child fleeing an abusive relationship protecting a child and protecting themselves."

While many have maintained New West is home to more than its share of social service outlets, Puchmayr maintains having them is a benefit to the city.

"At one point we carried more than our fair share of pubs and drinking establishments. The police calls were through the roof," said Puchmayr. "The people who don't realize the advantage of having those services available in their community aren't doing enough research. Those services have a positive impact on crime in the community. These are all places where people can turn their lives around. There are so many cases of people recovering and going on to live productive lives because we have those facilities."

But McIntosh said the supporters of EFry's application, compelling as their stories were, did not deal with the OCP issue, and she felt her fellow councillors got caught up in it.

"The emotion of supporting women who have gone through extremely difficult times in their lives whether they were addictive or abused, it can be emotionally charged, but that's not the OCP," said McIntosh. "I really felt the neighbourhood had come up with some very positive reasons for why you shouldn't just change the OCP for just one lot."

The society made a similar application last year, but pulled it back because of the community protest and adjusted its plans to answer the concerns.

"It's unfortunate. When EFry took away the application last year the community rested, and by resting they got the council they got [in the last election]," said McIntosh.

Wright said Tuesday the project is needed and wants to involve residents in the process.

"My job is to make sure that it works. The public has to be brought in in some way, so they have more comfort because that's what's going ahead," said Wright.

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