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National teapot tempest update: Habitat project approved in Alberta community on eve of municipal vote

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St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse

It may or may not have been April Fool's Day when Chris and Karleena Perry sat down to write their famous letter to the bi-weekly community paper in St. Albert, an Edmonton-region bedroom community, but when it appeared in the St. Albert Gazette last April 3 it was a shot heard 'round the world.

The Perrys' over-the-top letter assailing plans to build a 58-unit Habitat for Humanity condo development in St. Albert was so astonishingly politically incorrect it literally made headlines all over the planet -- and in the process gave a significant boost to the project the couple opposed.

A reduced 30-unit version of that project finally received approval from St. Albert City Council a week ago -- less than three weeks before a municipal election. How the Oct. 18 vote turns out will tell a lot about what kind of community St. Albert really is.

Now, the Perrys' comments have been recounted at length. But, hey, who can resist repeating them? "We moved to St. Albert because we can afford it and we deserve it," the couple explained. "What we want is for St. Albert to remain as it is with very few low-income households. …"

Elsewhere, they remarked: "This development will be hard for the families moving in. Being low income will make it difficult for children to be accepted in local schools. Like it or not, the children of St. Albert are high-standard children and have no place for low-income classmates."

Needless to say, this provoked a good deal of outrage elsewhere, and a certain amount of angst and embarrassment in St. Albert, where it was understood that while the Perrys lived in a very upscale part of a mostly upscale community, the development itself was slated for an older neighbourhood that could be fairly described as working class.

This is, after all, a community that's been known to elect Liberal and even New Democrat MLAs, and the famous letter was met with a collective community-wide cringe, even among many who opposed the Habitat development.

It was certainly true that many neighbours who objected to the development were focused on the loss of a green space many had thought was a park, the potential for parking problems and not the quality of the residents expected in the development. Moreover, opposition to the Habitat project was hardly unanimous even in the immediate neighbourhood.

Whatever motivated the reaction to the development, everyone knew the resulting brouhaha would give St. Albert an international black eye. And so it did, with mocking criticism showing up in the media in Central Canada, the United States and even the Middle East.

As a result, Many St. Albertans predicted city council would push ahead with the project both to address the community's need for affordable housing, a concern of many voters for all kinds of reasons, and in reaction to the tone of some opponents, best known among them now the Perrys.

With a province-wide municipal election looming, some ultra-conservative elements of the community sensed a political opportunity. Four of six councilors are seeking re-election in a field of 13 candidates, as is St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse, who is being challenged by a lightweight candidate who has glommed onto this issue. For city council, the smart thing might have been to stall approval of the development until after the election.

But Crouse's gutsy style is never to avoid a fight that needs to be fought, and council pressed on despite the risks, with the issue finally coming to a vote at the Sept. 29 special meeting.

The mayor argues that council listened to the residents and reduced the size of the project to answer their concerns. He recognized that anger lingers in the immediate area, but told the Edmonton Journal that "the broader community is quite pleased that we are moving forward on affordable housing."

So the results of the Oct. 18 municipal election -- especially the outcome of the mayoralty vote -- will tell other Canadians a lot about what kind of community this little city of 60,000 souls really is. Or, at the very least, what kind of community St. Albert will be seen to be.

David Climenhaga lives in St. Albert. This post also appears on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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