Fran Hurcomb
Mark Rendell

Strange Arrangement: Engaging with the Woodyard

The City promises to be gentle this time around, with lots of consultation

The latest round in the Woodyard debate went public during Monday’s City Council meeting, with administration and the mayor acknowledging that a land lease application had been submitted, but declaring that nothing nefarious is in the works for Yellowknife’s least-conformist part of town.

Mayor Mark Heyck would not confirm that eviction of the neighbourhood’s current inhabitants was totally off the cards: “I think it would be unfair to say anything, because we don’t have tenure to the land…and there’s a significant amount of public consultation [that has] to go on.”

However, the general sentiment from Heyck and the City’s director of planning, Jeff Humble, suggested the City has learned from previous heavy-handed approaches to dealing with Woodyard.

“We have no plan to evict people, to demolish, to anything, even to say we’re going to lease, because we don’t know what people want,” said Humble. “It’s difficult for us to say anything other than we’ll have an engagement process.”

The promised “several rounds of public engagement and consultation” won’t begin until the City acquires the lease and will likely take around two years to complete, said Humble. When it does get underway, a number of issues are going to require a “fairly creative approach.”

First, there’s taxation. The City has tried in the past to collect property taxes from Woodyard residents based on the appraised value of their shacks. All told, the City has issued some $250,000 in tax notices to Woodyarders, none of which have been paid, claimed Humble. However, as the Woodyard is on Territorial and not City land, it’s unclear whether the City has any jurisdiction to tax Woodyarders.

Humble tried explaining the muddle to EDGE, but even he admitted it was confusing: “If they were legitimate people leasing it, the GNWT would be the landlord. But they’re squatters, so we have got no recourse to claim the land. If the GNWT was the landlord, they would probably be paying taxes to us. But this is where it gets to be a really strange arrangement.“

Whether or not people will be forced to pay these back taxes should the City get the lease is one of the big questions that needs to be answered going forward.

Another question is whether the City will enforce the building code if they get the lease, as most, if not all, of the shacks do not meet current building standards. “We have to deal with these issues, [while] recognizing that there is this unique heritage component,” said Humble. There was little elaboration about what recognizing unique heritage means, or what counts as “preserving character.”

The final issue is legitimizing land tenure. “There’s not a straightforward configuration to what’s out there, so it’s not like we can go out there and subdivide a lot and say, ‘we’re going to cut you a lease,’ because how do we rationalize that?” said Humble. “It could be a condo approach, it could be a lot approach, it could be many things.”