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Lantzville preschool fights district-ordered eviction from heritage church

The District of Lantzville has given a daycare housed in the town’s heritage church a two-month eviction notice, citing years-old seismic concerns.

Colin Spensley thought his years of being on daycare waitlists were finally over when his ­four-year-old was accepted at a daycare a four-minute drive from home after his previous option burned down.

But last month, the ­District of Lantzville gave his ­daughter’s daycare, housed in the town’s heritage church, a two-month eviction notice, citing ­years-old seismic concerns based on reports written by an ­engineer who has since lost his ­accreditation.

“It’s not even about the price,” Spensley said. “There’s no ­alternative. There’s no childcare out there that we can find.”

His daughter was originally enrolled in a daycare in ­neighbouring Nanaimo, Spensley said. But they were forced to scramble for alternatives last year after that building — also a heritage church — burned down a month before she was due to start. Out of options, they reached out to the Thinking Garden Early Childhood Centre, the daycare and preschool based out of Lantzville Heritage Church. “[The daycare owner] took us on out of the kindness of her heart,” Spensley said.

The eviction notice came unexpectedly, in the form of a letter handed April 21 to ­Shandra Mayes, president of the non-profit Seaside Community Society, which has managed the district-owned heritage church for the past 12 years.

Mayes, long-time board ­member who was recently elected president, was expecting a friendly meet-and-greet with Lantzville’s chief ­administrative officer, Ronald Campbell, that day, a meeting that she had been trying to schedule the week before.

Mayes said she was ­blindsided by the eviction notice. “When I went there, it was him and the mayor and then this­ ­letter.”

The letter, according to Mayes, was signed by ­Campbell and said the district was ­terminating its agreement with Seaside Community Society on July 21, and no one would be able to enter the building as of that date.

The Seaside Community ­Society and Courtney Dubyna, owner of Thinking Garden, are trying to get answers about what will happen next.

Lantzville’s elected officials have so far been publicly silent on the matter, said Spensley. He said that’s unusual.

“They’re very vocal. There will be public discourse and discussion around such minute issues that sometimes to me feels so trivial,” he said, “and when they decided to condemn the second-oldest historic ­building in Lantzville, there’s just been nothing.”

Contacted by the Times Colonist, Lantzville Mayor Mark Swain referred the matter to Campbell. The Times Colonist contacted Campbell twice by phone on Monday and Tuesday. Both times, Campbell said he was in a meeting and offered to take a call the morning after. “I’m not in a position, obviously right now, to make any comments,” he said Tuesday.

Questions emailed to ­Campbell went unanswered by press time. Swain said via email that Campbell would be able to comment by Friday.

If Thinking Garden closes in July, the Spensleys will be one of 24 families that will have to find alternative childcare.

Many are appealing to the District of Lantzville to help keep one of the town’s largest childcare centres open.

More than 1,000 people have signed an online petition started by Dubyna asking the district to save the heritage church in the small town of just under 4,000 residents.

“My wife and I, we’re almost in denial right now. What are we supposed to do? We both have full-time jobs, and we’re staring down the barrel of two months’ notice,” said Spensley, whose daughter had been on Thinking Garden’s waitlist for three years before she was accepted.

There is a critical shortage of childcare in the region. A 2020 report by B.C.’s Social Planning and Research Council says that less than half the childcare needs in the communities of Lantzville, Nanaimo, Parksville, and Qualicum Beach are being met by the facilities in the region.

In 2016, Lantzville only had 250 spaces for 425 children under the age of 12, according to data from the census and Island Health.

Right now, there are more than 100 families waitlisted for Thinking Garden, Dubyna said.

Amelia House, the only other preschool in Lantzville with zoning permission to take more than eight children, also has a waitlist.

Thinking Garden has been housed in the Lantzville Heritage Church since 2016.

Dubyna said the building’s seismic and safety concerns were not clearly indicated when the daycare first signed its lease in 2016 and renewed it in 2022. The latter renewal included a condition that the tenants be aware of previous reports on the building’s structure, and work with the landlord on any possible renovations.

A 2009 inspection of the building done by the Lantzville Historical Society concluded the building was “in reasonable condition for its age” and was well maintained, the Seaside Community Society said in a statement.

Given the age of the building, Spensley was not surprised to learn it had been deemed seismically unsafe, but he questions why the district would sign leases for its use knowing it was unsafe.

In 2016, Lantzville staff had plans to put $150,000 worth of seismic and structural upgrades into the heritage church two years later, in 2018, according to a draft version of its five-year financial plan at the time.

At the time, Lantzville staff flagged “public safety concerns with respect to structural and seismic issues” first identified by engineer Brian McClure in a 2013 report. No structural work on the building has been done since.

“[The landlord] told me: ‘This is a wall that needs to be done. It’s no biggie. It’s not anything you need to worry about. If and when this renovation comes, we will do our best to do it within your schedule,’ ” Dubyna said. “We signed into rental contracts in good faith that the building was safe for children and our program.”

Engineers and Geoscientists B.C. pulled McClure’s licence to practice in 2022, after he admitted that he demonstrated unprofessional conduct and incompetence when designing RidgeView Place, an 11-storey Langford apartment building.

Seaside Community Society and Thinking Gardens have both pointed out that McClure has had his license revoked and are asking the district to retain another structural engineer to re-inspect the building. The contracts between the three parties stipulate a six-month notice for termination, said Dubyna and Mayes.

“They’re in breach of contract with us, which then puts us in [breach of] contract with the Thinking Garden. That’s going to open up a whole big can of legal worms,” Mayes said.

The district is threatening to lock the daycare out if it doesn’t leave by July 21, Dubyna said.

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