April 11, 2016 9:09 pm

Citizens take City of Edmonton to court over development of school surplus sites

WATCH ABOVE: The issue of school surplus sites will be heard in an Edmonton courtroom this week, with a citizens' group arguing a city program breaks the rules. Vinesh Pratap reports.

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EDMONTON – An Edmonton citizens’ group says it is ready for a legal showdown to begin later this week as it takes the city to task over its program allowing residential developments on school surplus sites.

Since 2006, the City of Edmonton has been buying greenspace at surplus school sites and designating it for market-priced townhouse developments. The developments are unique in that they allow the homeowner to pay only the mortgage on the home for the first five years, after which that land value is incorporated into the payments.

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While it presents an opportunity for people who may otherwise not be able to to buy a home, some Edmontonians aren’t fans of the initiative and say they’re upset they weren’t consulted before the sites were rezoned.

“Our hope is that the city will have to halt this program, we’re hoping that they scrap it,” Barry Kossowan of the citizens’ group Accountable, Collaborative & Transparent (ACT) for Community, said. “If you’re going to do anything with this land space give us a school first. But if not, then give us a say in how the land is supposed to be used.”

ACT for Community argues the city program contravenes the Municipal Government Act on two fronts: municipalities can’t lend money and when the land value is incorporated into the mortgage, it will be done at the value it had five years before that.

“By the very fact that a buyer doesn’t have to pay for the land for five years – that’s a loan,” Kossowan said. “Not only is it a loan, it’s an interest-free loan.

“The municipality can’t sell land for less than its market value.”

Coun. Ed Gibbons argues the developments offer benefits to the city as a whole.

“I’ve got three of them in my area and they’ve gone over quite well,” the Ward 4 councillor said, suggesting ACT for Community is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) group acting in the interests of just a few. “They’re not seeing the whole argument. They’re not walking through the whole argument of why it’s so important.”

The city has acquired 40 surplus school sites over the past decade and 18 are currently set aside for its homeowner program. The sites were left up for grabs by school boards and then rezoned for residential development. ACT for Community’s legal challenge is scheduled to be heard in court Thursday and Kossowan suggested the battle is largely over principle.

“We deserve a say in how that land is supposed to be used,” he said. “The city, in their own policy, state that before greenspace can be used for anything there has to be a needs assessment done.”

With files from Vinesh Pratap.

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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