On the Agenda for a Public Meeting of Madawaska Valley Council on Aug.8 was an application from Seat of Wisdom College (SWC) asking MV Township to approve a Zoning By-Law amendment to transform a 3-bedroom family home in Barry’s Bay into a Religious Educational Facility with dormitory space for up to 16 students. Luke Desjardins, MV’s Manager of Planning & Development, told Council that a zoning Exception would retain the residential designation of the property at 156 Lakeshore Drive, so he recommended SWC apply for a Change of Occupancy. This would be followed by an application for a Change of Use Building Permit under the Building Code to ensure it was upgraded as necessary for its intended use. Above: John Boskill, SWC Vice-President of Administration (left) and Luke Desjardins, MV Manager of Planning & Development. Photo: YouTube/MadawaskaValley
The Applicant’s representative, John Boskill, Vice-President of Administration at SWC, said there was potential for more use of the building. In addition to student residence, the application form cites study space, meeting space, library and perhaps offices or chapel as well. He said SWC had just over 90 students in residence and “With housing like it is in town, [we want] to make sure there is room for students.”
In his opening remarks, Desjardins said he had received no written or telephone comments from the public regarding the Notice of Application that was posted on July 23, so Mayor Mark Willmer asked for comments from those present. Zdzislaw Jakya, the neighbour at no.164 Lakeshore, spoke in favour of the application. The Mayor then asked Council to weigh in.
Councillor Mary Blank confirmed that SWC had acquired the property in July 2022 and went on to state that she was extremely concerned about the necessary fire safety upgrades which the application says have been addressed. She asked Boskill to explain what was requested and what has been addressed.
Boskill replied that various fire safety features had been installed. Blank told Council that when she requested comment about the property from MV’s Fire Officer, he stated: “They need an engineering review, as they will need fire separations, fire doors and possibly an alarm system depending on how many people are planning and living there.” Boskill confirmed to Blank there would be 15 or 16 occupants. Blank responded that she knows the property and cannot see how it could accommodate that many, and said she would be greatly concerned if a child of hers was living there. She said the Fire Chief told her that once all the work was completed, he and the Chief Building Officer would inspect and confirm that SWC had met the requirements. But according to the Fire Chief they had not been in the house since a fire alarm call there last year. When asked by the Councillor, Boskill conceded that there were discussions with both Fire Chief and Chief Building Officer last summer when an alarm went off. Blank pressed him further saying the Fire Chief told her that changes to the building have to meet the code for fire and he has not been called for any type of inspection. She pointed out that discussions are not the same as inspections that result in official approvals.
Boskill told Council that with MV’s permission he would hope that the property would be ready for student occupation in time for the beginning of term in September. Councillor Blank responded, “I would hope not. Until this is done I will never approve anything for the health and safety of anyone.”
Blank added that Boskill had mentioned the housing crisis in the community and asked, “I hear complaints constantly that as soon as a house goes up for sale, or even before it goes on the market, it is grabbed by the College. I’ve heard a figure of 26 buildings. Is that correct?” Boskill replied that the College owns eight houses and rents an additional one. Under questioning, he eventually agreed that individual families working at the College also own homes but he did not know how many. Blank pointed out that if Council allows this change, there will be no tax dollars coming from the property.
Desjardins explained that the architect’s assessment for the change of use is a building code matter so was not submitted to Council for the Zoning amendment, and said this would be a two-step process.
Councillor Shelley Maika said that she too had visited the house and hoped SWC did not plan to put 14 or 15 people into three bedrooms. Boskill assured her there would be eight bedrooms and four bathrooms, and that the basement bedrooms already had sinks. Maika said, “I agree with Councillor Blank; to put in a library or chapel is either wishful thinking or we’re trying to put a round peg in a square hole.” She also raised concerns about parking, saying the application did not address the fact that college-aged students drive cars.
Maika echoed Blank’s concerns about taxation too, and Boskill agreed that SWC had already applied to MPAC for a property tax exemption. Maika responded, “It is not fair for the residents in this town, not fair for the municipality, that anybody comes in and buys up residences and all of a sudden magically does not have to pay taxes. I think you’re going to find a lot of people in this community don’t know that and you’re going to be losing a lot of support.” She suggested it was time to consider if the College should buy a larger piece of land or build a campus, and that SWC should meet with the municipality to discuss its future growth.
She ended by saying, “We are at a crossroads…. We’ve got a housing issue for our local residents and you guys have a housing issue for your students. And we’re all competing for a few little houses.”
Desrochers told Council he would debrief with Boskill and then update Council.