It's an otherwise unassuming three-storey building in a lower city neighbourhood. But it'll come under intense scrutiny next week as Hamilton officials face off with a non-profit organization in an effort to relocate a girls' group home.
The Lynwood Charlton Centre will fight the city at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) on Oct. 16. The organization wants to place an eight-bed home for teen girls with mental health issues at 121 Augusta St., home of its day treatment program and the site of a former mill.
The hearing will mark the end of an emotional issue that has embroiled politicians and residents for the past year. Lynwood Charlton first approached the city in early 2011 about moving the girls out of a city-owned building at 52-56 Charlton Ave., which needs $1.2 million in repairs. The non-profit wants to move the beds to its Corktown property.
Councillors denied the application earlier this year, citing a radial separation bylaw that prohibits more than 20 residential treatment beds within a 300-metre radius. Next week, the OMB will pick a winner in a hearing expected to take five days.
"Our interest is that we win the case and make the move from Charlton to Augusta," said Alex Thomson, executive director of Lynwood Charlton. "If that happens, we know we have some homework to do to manage and repair and establish a relationship with the neighbourhoodhood."
The case is not a simple one, said Coun. Jason Farr. The radial separation bylaw was put in place to prevent "the institutionalizing of neighbourhoods."
Farr has heard from Corktown residents and the neighbourhood association about the issue. Residents are not against the presence of the teenage girls, Farr said. But they see this as inappropriate use of the property.
"They understand as I do that it's a neighbourhood planning issue," he said. "Take the personalities out and look at it in the way we zone and plan our neighbourhoods.
"Snippets from both sides have ended up becoming the issue and not how we zone the neighbourhood."
The radial separation bylaw is not discriminatory, Farr said.
"It's a zoning issue, plain and simple, right from the get-go."
But Barbara Hall, chief commissioner from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, disagrees. Her commission has asked to intervene in the OMB appeal, citing the bylaw as a human rights issue.
The bylaw is "people zoning" as opposed to zoning on planning issues, Hall told CBC Hamilton. Hall knows about zoning issues. She was the mayor of Toronto between 1994 and 1997.
"We see that as discriminatory barriers to, in this case, a group of young women who are very much in need of housing."
The commission intervened in Toronto, Sarnia and Kitchener over similar bylaws, Hall said. Kitchener recently voted to scrap its bylaw.
If granted intervener status, "we would make arguments about why we believe the actions of Hamilton council are discriminatory," she said.
City staff would not comment on the case Tuesday, citing the OMB challenge. But at a Sept. 26 council meeting, director of planning Paul Mallard presented another argument against the file.
Staff has learned that the multiple planned uses would require the property to be zoned institutional, he said.
The city is prepared to present either argument at the OMB, city solicitor Mike Kovacevic told council.
"At this point, not knowing what the applicant is going to do, the radial separation may or may not be an issue."
Wouldn't cause trouble
A Corktown residence would be staffed 24/7, Thomson said. Any challenges to the neighbourhood would come from increased activity at the site, not from the girls themselves.
"These are kids who have anxieties," he said. "These are kids who sometimes self harm. They're not in the neighbourhood causing trouble. They're kids with inward issues."
Mary Hudecki, who lives near the Augusta site, is opposed to the move. But it's not because of the girls, she said.
Granting a zoning amendment opens up the property to various other residential treatment uses later on, such as a halfway house, she said.
"There's the fear of the unknown, who might move in there next. That's our concern in the neighbourhood."
Others denied too
Resident Maureen Bittner, who has lived in the neighbourhood since 1985, has the opposite stance.
"I'm in favour of it," she said. "It's better than having it empty. Some people are worried about crime, but we have crime in the neighbourhood anyway."
The issue has been divisive at council, Farr said. But radial separation has applied to other residential care facilities.
"I have to say no to them too," he said. "What makes teenage girls with mental health issues any different? You can't pick and choose."
Whatever the result, he said, the city will live with it.
"Right now I can just say that in whatever fashion, both sides will present their cases," he said. "Whatever the outcome, I'll work with it to the best of my ability and I'm sure the neighbours will too."