Council wants more time to decide fate of Old Town business

Council wants more time to decide fate of Old Town business

Yellowknife councillors say they need more time to solve a disagreement between city planners and a decades-old outdoor adventure company.

Cathy Allooloo and Narwal Northern Adventures have become firmly established on Anderson-Thomson Boulevard, a narrow residential street bordering Back Bay.

The business is a tour operator that offers various forms of wilderness learning alongside canoe and kayak instruction.

Allooloo is trying to bring her business into conformity with city rules by acquiring a narrow strip of city land next to her property – at the end of the street – that she’s been using for years without formal permission, and by having the lot rezoned to whatever the city feels is most appropriate.

City planners, though, say the most appropriate thing for the neighbourhood is for her application to be denied.

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Council wants more time to decide fate of Old Town business

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The city, in a briefing note for councillors, said Allooloo’s application broke all kinds of policies, rules and guidelines that require:

  • businesses to be “concentrated along the main corridors of Old Town,” not side streets like this one;
  • lots of road space for emergency responders to get to a business if there’s a problem;
  • restrictions on developments that “are not compatible with the shoreline or exposed rock settings;” and
  • maintenance of “recognized natural areas of Old Town,” such as the patch of land Allooloo is trying to acquire, which is currently zoned as a natural area.

At a meeting earlier in June, city staff said Allooloo’s application “just generally did not conform.”

“The application as presented did not represent good land use planning,” council was told.

‘A community service’

Allooloo started down this road, so to speak, with an application to the city in 2021.

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By the end of that year, the application had reached council, which told staff to work with her on “further consultation and resolution.”

Theoretically, Monday was to be the night of that resolution – with city staff recommending the application be rejected.

A map produced by the City of Yellowknife shows Allooloo’s property, at the end of Anderson-Thomson Boulevard, with Back Bay just out of picture to the northeast. The area inside the pink dotted line represents the portion of city land Allooloo has been using without actually holding the title.

Addressing council, Allooloo said she understood the rules staff were following and the work they had to do, but she said a package of documents for council had omitted some letters of support – which she said “far outweigh” letters of opposition – and showed the city contradicting itself about the suitability of the road.

More than that, three neighbours told council in separate Monday speeches, the city was failing to grasp the respect and admiration some residents hold for Allooloo and Narwal, and was unduly suffocating a longstanding business.

“I have not seen any issues, ever, with parking or traffic problems,” said Dot Van Vliet. (City Hall had asked Allooloo to carry out a traffic study, which she did not complete.)

“My whole family has taken courses from her over a period of 30 years. First aid, wilderness first aid, water safety – it was the first of its kind and has been an essential service to our community,” Van Vliet continued. “It’s not just a business, it’s a community service.”

“Cathy and Narwal have added strong value to the neighbourhood, as well as residents of and visitors to Yellowknife, while maintaining a small footprint,” said Shawne Kokelj, who added the traffic Narwal’s visitors generate is “minor” compared to that experienced during softball tournaments at the nearby ball diamonds.

“We have a neighbourhood, and a really, really big part of that is Cathy,” said Mindy Willett.

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“This is not some big business that has tons of extra money, that can go buy property somewhere else in Yellowknife. She’s just a small business, trying to pay her bills.”

Mayor Rebecca Alty, listening to those speeches, sought to gently press residents supporting Allooloo on the prospect that Narwal might not always be the owner of the lot.

Decisions to rezone a certain piece of land or allow a certain function don’t vanish if a specific business moves elsewhere or ceases to be. Alty asked residents how they’d feel about other types of business on the same lot, and some said they’d need to think about that.

Motion is tabled

Ultimately, councillors decided they needed to think, too – not least because they said Allooloo had reframed some of the issue.

In her speech to council, she offered what she said was a way forward: allow her to acquire the extra land and leave her lot zoned residential, rather than changing it to commercial or another option, and she’ll operate Narwal as a home-based business (generally allowed in any residential zone) with a maximum of two employees based at the property.

That’s a change from the application as presented to council, which calls for a “site-specific mixed‐use residential and commercial zone” to be created.

Allooloo told council she had never sought a zoning change, and that had been “a requirement imposed by the planning department.”

“I believe this to be a workable way forward, recognizing the practical challenges facing Old Town development,” she said of her proposal. “This approach will preserve the viability of a longstanding, majority Indigenous-owned business.”

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Keeping the lot residential would remove the concern that another business could one day take over the same lot and do something completely different, outside the usual terms for a home-based business. But it also requires that city staff convince themselves a precedent is not being set that would let rules be unreasonably bent in future.

“While I understand where the sentiment is coming from,” said planning director Charlsey White when some councillors expressed support for Allooloo earlier in the month, “we really are required to ensure that any recommendation we make to council is in line and conforms.”

“It would not represent a good recommendation,” she said, “for us to recommend something that doesn’t meet the legislative conformity test.”

Having heard Allooloo present her way forward, councillors moved unanimously to table their motion regarding what happens next.

That means they’ll press pause on the process while they reflect on her proposal. It’ll return for council consideration at a later date, but that date hasn’t been set.

“I need a bit more time to consider it as a home-based business,” said Alty, while deputy mayor Garett Cochrane said “a lot of invaluable information” had been provided by Allooloo.

White said the change would require an amended application with Allooloo’s proposal set out in writing.

“We’ll think about it. We’ll discuss it,” Alty told Allooloo and the neighbours who supported her at Monday’s meeting.

“We’ll keep you posted on next steps but, for now, it’s on the table as we consider and reflect and ask questions.”