Developer’s variance request shot down for second time
BY JOHN CHICK
Special to the VOICE
The September 16 meeting of Pelham Town Council was more noteworthy for older items later discussed behind closed doors, as opposed to anything on the regular agenda.
Council voted to go in camera—out of public view— over a handful of contentious matters, most notably the previous meeting’s decision to deny a developer an application to build a three-storey addition on top of a prominent, two-storey Fonthill commercial building,
That denial during the September 3 meeting put the kibosh on plans to turn 1440 Pelham Street—currently the home of Fonthill Fitness above and a restaurant below— into a five-storey, mixed-use mid-rise, and was met with applause from various local residents.
Two weeks later however, council appeared concerned about potential legal challenges to its decision, with Ward 3’s Bob Hildebrandt moving an amendment to allow the development to go forward.
“I believe as councilor we need legal advice on the issues,” Hildebrandt said.
It’s here that things slightly went off the rails.
When it was suggested that council reconvene in private to discuss the matter with Town CAO David Cribbs— a licensed solicitor —Ward 2 Councilor Ron Kore objected.
“We don’t have a lawyer [present], we have a CAO, but he’s not our lawyer,” Kore said. “We should have proper legal advice. We didn’t hire him as our lawyer, we hired him as our CAO.”
“I don’t like to publicly disagree with any of my employers,” Cribbs replied, “but I am a member in good standing of the Law Society of Upper Canada. [The Town of Pelham] pays for that membership. I am capable of providing you with that advice.”
Ultimately, Kore was the only councillor to vote against going in camera for discussion.
When they came out of the closed meeting, council voted 4-3 to defeat Hildebrandt’s amendment, which had been seconded by Ward 2’s John Wink, to allow the taller building. Hildebrandt had argued for the development before, saying that downtown is the logical location for height densification—citing larger cities and the layout of old-world European communities.
Three days after the meeting, Cribbs explained to the Voice that providing council with legal advice is not a conflict of interest.
“Not only is there not one, but frankly that’s a misapplication of the concept,” Cribbs said.“It’s not a concept that gets applied to staff— we don’t make decisions, we just supply advice, so we can’t be in conflict on provision of advice. The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act only applies to elected officials. All decisions made on Monday night were made by elected officials, who are the people in charge.”
The CAO—who has been on the job 10 weeks— added that it’s not uncommon for council members to want to seek reassurance on these sorts of matters.
“What I can say is that there were multiple contentious issues, on each of which we had a split council…and in those instances it is fairly normal to seek reassurance. There just so happened to be a lawyer on payroll in the room … procedurally, there is nothing wrong with council asking questions [behind closed doors], and frankly it isn’t uncommon. I would imagine this will happen less frequently in the future as this council gains more experience.”
Also included in the private powwow was another hot-button item from September 3—debate over the sizes of front yards at new homes in the Port Robinson-Rice Roads area. Councilor Lisa Haun had led the charge against shrinking frontages at the previous meeting, and reiterated that goal last Monday.
“It wouldn’t change the overall size of the lot, just the size of the front yard,” Haun said.
Kore agreed, implying that larger front yards present a more welcoming visual, consistent with older Pelham planning.
“It’s important we have a community that’s inviting,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to create two different communities— the old community and the new community, that’s my opinion.”
Not all of council objected to the developer’s plans. John Wink pointed out that the developer of this particular project —Phase 3 of Saffron Meadows— has already employed the concept in the first two phases.
“We’ve set some sort of precedent already in that area,” he said. “We can’t keep on flipping on front yards. This is no different than Phase 1 and Phase 2.”
Ward 1 Councillor Marianne Stewart said that the newer style of home adds a contemporary touch to the character of Pelham.
“From the perspective of a great number of people that are moving here … they are moving to ‘the country’ in parentheses,” Stewart said. “Part of the charm of it is the variations of the different types of housing … this one was built 100 years, ago, this one 30 years ago, they all have different setbacks. It is so much a part of the charm of the town.”
The reason council can challenge the developer’s plans in the first place is that the zoning bylaws on frontages were last updated in 1987. The previous Town Council authorized the smaller yards in the first two phases.
In the end, Haun’s amendment to increase the front yard size was defeated.
Council voted to move ahead with helping the Fonthill Bandshell Committee fund tens of thousands of dollars worth of needed maintenance and upgrades. During the September 3 meeting, Bandshell Committee chair Gayle Baltjes asked for the Town’s assistance in updating the grass slope around the bandshell, which has deteriorated substantially after 14 years of heavy use. Public Works Director Jason Marr has described the needed work as gently re-grading the one-acre site, with proper drainage and irrigation.
After consulting with the committee, Cribbs said that about double the original estimate is needed.
“We think that the works involved, ballpark around $75,000 is not unreasonable,” he said.
The issue is where to get the money fast. Work would need to start in earnest soon in order to be ready for next year, and Cribbs suggested the Town essentially loan the committee the cash.
“The Town has the financial resources to act as banker and could be paid back over the next year,” he said.
Kore felt the need for the Town to do more, rather than ask the Bandshell Committee to borrow the money and then raise funds to pay it back.
“It’s the Town’s park, we own a part of it, why do we always depend on volunteers and fundraisers to improve our Town? Do we not have money to help them?” he asked.
Treasurer Teresa Quinlin said funding could be included in the Town’s 2020 proposed capital budget.
Temperanceville no more
Later, in the Committee of the Whole portion of the evening, Councillor Stewart motioned that alcohol sales be banned at Pelham’s annual Outdoor Christmas Market, in a bid to keep the event “totally family-friendly.”
Ward 1’s other councillor, Mike Ciolfi, disagreed, saying the event is really no different than a licensed restaurant.
“I don’t think that just because there’s because alcohol, it’s not family-friendly,” he said. “I’ve never seen it to be a drunk-fest. It’s no different than taking your kids out for a hamburger and you might have a glass of wine.”
The motion was defeated 4-2.