Developer Mathew Isabelle spoke to Grand Forks city council by video this week about his plants to build a 21-unit townhouse development.

Developer Mathew Isabelle spoke to Grand Forks city council by video this week about his plants to build a 21-unit townhouse development.

UPDATED: Fire access solution sought in Grand Forks townhome proposal

Developer wants to buy a piece of land from the city, but council wants to maintain a fire lane.

By Greg Nesteroff

Grand Forks city council is hoping a deal might yet be reached that will allow a residential development between 21st and 22nd streets to go ahead while maintaining fire access to a neighbouring building.

Developer Mathew Isabelle of MJI Contracting wants to buy a city-owned strip of property that divides the land. It would allow him to consolidate the lots and build a series of townhomes.

While the city doesn’t oppose giving up the land, they are using it as leverage in negotiations to maintain a laneway at the north end of the property so the fire department’s ladder truck can reach an existing four-storey building. The gravel laneway currently passes through two of Isabelle’s lots.

The city proposed a swap. In exchange for the centre lane, they would like a two-metre strip off of Isabelle’s property that would be added to an existing four-metre boulevard, thereby maintaining a six-metre clearance for the fire truck. But Isabelle indicated he requires the full width of his property to make the design work.

“If we don’t have backyards for our development, it’s not worth building,” he told city council this week. “We’ll work to get the city access down the side, but it has to be a separate issue. It doesn’t have anything to do with our development permit.”

Isabelle said he is not trying to prevent fire access, but there is an alternative solution, for the city actually has a registered laneway north of his property that the neighbouring building has been using as yard space.

Isabelle said if he is unable to acquire the centre strip of land, he would only be able to build a portion of the 21 planned units.

City manager Duncan Redfearn agreed “the laneway isn’t his problem and he could close it off today and there is nothing we could do about that … The fire code doesn’t require that we have access to all sides of the [existing] building, but it’s ideal.”

Redfearn said a development permit can’t be issued until the matter is resolved. He said it is a tough call for council, as there is some risk of the developer not moving forward.

“I know how desperately we need housing,” city councillor Cathy Korolek said. “It would be nice to have maximum accessibility, but there has to be a compromise to encourage this. If we don’t, we could be limiting our future viability as a community.”

Councillor Everett Baker agreed. “We are so short of housing stock that I would hate to see us lose units. I have great faith in our staff to talk it through.”

Council passed no additional motions, as the discussion simply reaffirmed their previous direction to staff to find a way to maintain the fire lane.

In an interview after the meeting, Isabelle said a potential resolution is in the works that would see him relocate a mechanical building, provide the city with a utility easement, and install a gate at the back of his property that the fire department could access. It would allow him to still put in back yards on the townhomes.