Red Deer city council unanimously rejected on Monday a proposed francophone school site in a south-end neighbourhood, but not without criticizing the provincial government for its involvement in trying to push the project through.
Council denied rezoning a site along Addington Drive in Aspen Ridge so it could be a pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 francophone school instead of a public kindergarten to Grade 8 school.
They turned down second reading of the East Hill Major Area Structure Plan, which made it unnecessary to go ahead with changing the smaller Aspen Ridge Neighbourhood Area Structure Plan.
Council rejected rezoning for a number of reasons: concerns over increased traffic and parking; K-12 schools aren’t within current city planning documents; and not having time to do a thorough analysis.
City council directed staff to work with Alberta Education and Greater North Central Francophone Education Region No. 2 to explore other sites over the next couple of weeks.
“We have not turned down the school,” said Mayor Morris Flewwelling, adding urgency on this project is important.
Flewwelling said he’s never “seen the community rise to a situation like this before” in the more than 20 years he’s been in office.
On March 5, more than 125 people showed up at a public hearing.
A number of councillors said it was important to tell the francophone board that it wasn’t rejecting their school, but they felt the site wasn’t right.
They took aim at the provincial government for fast-tracking its construction process of schools.
“The province has managed to assert themselves and disrupt what would normally happen in our community (which is) careful consultation and planning,” said Coun. Paul Harris.
Coun. Lynne Mulder said the city was placed in a difficult position, particularly when so many residents were opposed to the location for a high school.
Coun. Chris Stephan referred to Alberta Infrastructure’s oversight when it posted a sign at the site, announcing the francophone school. This just riled the community, he said.
“My heart really goes out to École La Prairie (Red Deer’s sole francophone school) and the position they were put in from the province,” he said. “I think the city, community and the school were put in a really tough situation, based on the manner in which the province wants to push this through.”
The francophone school is part of a P3 (public private partnership) project involving three other school projects within the Red Deer area alone. The provincial government indicated it needed a decision by today, so that it could get moving with the tendering process.
Coun. Cindy Jefferies, a former public school trustee, said she was concerned about the possible impacts on other P3 projects because of this delay.
“In the end, we have to look at what is best for our community as a whole,” Jefferies said. “Neighbours originally thought they were getting a K to 5 site, then a K to 8 site.”
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said she drove down to the site and figured that the curvature of the site would make it unsafe for the additional traffic that would come.
“I hope that the (provincial government) will still work with us and acknowledge that the P3 funding will still be available (for all the Red Deer area projects),” she said.
Coun. Frank Wong said that the francophone school will be a big community asset, but the city was being rushed into making a decision. Coun. Buck Buchanan, who was attending via a conference call, echoed his colleagues’ sentiments.
Council generally spoke how vital it was to think of the residents in Aspen Ridge, who were overwhelmingly against plans for a high school.
“I am of the mind that the implications of a high school, especially from a traffic, access and parking perspective, are very different from the planning considerations of a K to 5 or K to 8 school,” said Coun. Tara Veer. “I think we have other statutory plans that speak to how very different these planning considerations are.”
Veer said these recent discussions around changing statutory plans made residents feel uncertain around city planning.
“It’s critical that our citizens have confidence in a statutory plan, particularly when they buy into an area with a specific understanding,” she said.
City manager Craig Curtis opened the meeting to say that the city was somewhat blindsided by the zoning application as it was “made outside of the normal planning process for school sites and the school agreement.”
“We were originally aware that the francophone board intended to rebuild on their existing site,” Curtis said in his presentation. “The change of plan appears to have occurred after the province initiated its P3 process and the site was considered to be too small for the model now being advocated.”
Curtis had suggested two alternatives — setting aside the bylaw amendment for a couple of week so that further discussions could occur between all parties regarding other sites, or denying the Aspen Ridge site and directing administration to work with all parties on possible sites.
The second option was approved.
School trustee Nicole Lorrain, who represents rural schools in Wainwright, Red Deer and Fort McMurray, said she wasn’t surprised by Monday’s decision.
“We’re disappointed, but at least they’re open to going back to the drawing board and helping us work quickly,” she said. “Every delay is putting us further and further from that P3 bundle.”
Harris said he still feels the existing École La Prairie site may be the best site.
“I just think about the learning opportunities that would be available if that particular site was developed so the students could be near the trail systems, commercial districts and be able to access amenities in the downtown and the nearby high schools,” Harris said.
Aspen Ridge resident Al Laplante left the meeting, only saying he was satisfied with council’s decision.