Kore returns, council again defers action

Ward 2 Councillor Ron Kore made his return to Town of Pelham duty for the June 1 council meeting. Notably, his return was marked with neither a welcome back from his fellow councillors, nor a statement from Kore explaining his extended absence. He last attended a council meeting on March 23, displaying symptoms of a respiratory illness, presumptively COVID-19 according to Niagara Public Health’s timeline of Kore’s later positive test result for the virus.

All councillors participated on Monday by video conference, with Kore joining discussion over staff’s proposed bylaws for short-term rentals.

On several occasions during the debate, Kore conflated short-term rental services, such as Airbnb, with traditional bed-and- breakfasts, something that a staff report had taken care to distinguish as separate categories. Under the Town’s proposal, traditional bed-and-breakfasts—of which Director of Planning and Development Barb Wiens said there were “five or six” in Pelham —would be grandfathered in as protected under bylaws which would ban any Airbnb-type establishment, unless it was granted a zoning amendment by council. Under this approach, any such existing short-term (whole house) rentals would be classified as illegal.

“The grandfathering provision is there for what we call refer to as bed-and-breakfast establishments, where you are owner-occupied, and you’re offering rooms for rent in your home and you live there,” Wiens said, adding that the handful of existing bed-and-breakfasts in Pelham have never had a complaint recorded against them.

“I know at the beginning of this process … you mentioned 20,” Kore said. “I think that’s underestimating. I think there’s a lot more than 20 Airbnbs or bed-and-breakfasts. It just scares me that with that provision … that these people will have the ability to continue business as usual.”

Wiens replied: “To be clear, when we had indicated that there were 20 … that’s based on our review of websites that these operators list on. Those that are the traditional bed-and- breakfasts that are owner-occupied, there’s only five or six of those.”

Kore asked that those establishments be specifically named in the bylaw for legal reasons. Wiens said that was something that could be accommodated.

Despite the clarification and stated difference in classification, Kore asked if Airbnbs would be grandfathered.

“So, I’m running an Airbnb today, am I grandfathered, or do I have to go through the same system, and am I guaranteed to have that Airbnb under this new bylaw?” he asked.

Wiens replied: “Councillor Kore when you’re saying ‘Airbnb’ what you mean?”

Kore: “Well, short-term rentals, I apologize.”

He then asked if an Airbnb-type operator could cheat the system by providing breakfast to houseguests.

“You have to live there,” responded Wiens, “and so you’re only renting out a bedroom, you’re not renting out the entire house,” again clarifying the difference between a bed-and-breakfast and short-term accommodation that rents out an entire house with the owner absent.

“You actually have to live there and provide the service.”

However, the bed-and-breakfast exception did not sit well with other councillors.

John Wink feared that by highlighting the definition, it will open up the possibility of more homeowners operating bed-and-breakfasts.

“We’re looking at expanding that,” he said. “I don’t see why we’re trying to expand that. We’re adding further potential rights to property owners to make an application for a zoning change where someone is going to be able to put a bed-and- breakfast in a townhouse in the urban living area and the neighbours around there are not going to be happy. In all honesty I was shocked to see my next door neighbour can open up a bed-and-breakfast.”

Wiens said that any such endeavour would likely violate existing parking requirements.

“The chances of it happening are not particularly high,” she said, citing the questionable appeal, for example, of a bed-and- breakfast operating in a townhouse.

“You can’t just buy a house and get a licence,” Wiens said, describing the rules in the proposed bylaw. “Whether you’re in a single-detached dwelling, an apartment or a condo, you cannot operate one of these legally unless you have zoning approval in the residential area.”

Councillor Marianne Stewart also voiced concern about enforcement and penalties for property owners that violate the proposed bylaw.

“Set the boundary where, if there’s so many, you get police action or you take them to court,” Stewart said. “It needs to be very strongly worded and enforced because it’s too easy to make money that way.”

CAO David Cribbs said that this was attainable.

“We would make sure the serious violations … would find their way to the court system,” Cribbs said. “Not dissimilar to how we’re proposing to treat cannabis.”

Still, concerns over the bill prompted councillors to defer the matter until July 13, another in a series of cans kicked down the road, a habit now customary some 18 months into the current administration.

Cribbs urged councillors to highlight areas of concern in order not to jeopardize staff’s work on the overall bylaw.

“It is often, but not tonight, the preference of your staff, when we present major reports of this size and magnitude, that took months and months and months of labour, to get them passed through and carry on with the next file,” Cribbs said. “We are however in a world where people aren’t staying in hotels or short-term rentals or B&B’s. That’s not happening right now, hence why there was no problem deferring this from April to tonight. The thing is, there’s a lot of thought that goes into how the different sections work together and changes or deletions can have absolute unintended consequences.”

Stewart then asked if another public consultation could be had, to which a visibly frustrated Cribbs replied that this was not normal municipal practice.

“That is not the process here. That’s not the process for the Town of Pelham or the City of St. Catharines, or the City of Sarnia, or the City of Toronto, that’s not what we’re doing,” the CAO said. “We did a very deep public consultation process. We really listened to a lot of people. There was a lot of opportunity for input, it’s reflected in the work product. This item was on the agenda in late April, [with an] opportunity for the public to see it, interact with it, interact with you. At this point the decision is in your hands, not anyone else’s.”

Wink urged quick movement ahead of July 13, however, saying that there are in fact Airbnbs currently operating in Pelham during the pandemic.

“Yes, they are,” he said. “Here’s the example: if I’m a worker in the area, I’m being sent from Toronto to work in Niagara Falls, I rent an Airbnb for a couple of weeks, do my work, and go back home.”

Special strategic  meeting in fall

Cribbs proposed that a special meeting of council be held in the fall — after the proposed by-election to fill late Councillor Mike Ciolfi’s seat — for a strategic planning session.

“I can tell you that it would be fair to summarize the thoughts of the Town’s [staff] as being preoccupied with the issue of layoffs, with timelines for reopening, and with safety guidelines on how to reopen appropriately,” Cribbs said. “By October you are going to have a new colleague … and he or she ought to have some input on the direction going forward. This pandemic is fundamentally changing the nature of this town’s finances and presents some new and unique problems that really no one’s managed through before.”

Money for parking study approved

Despite that harsh economic reality, Councillor Lisa Haun brought forward a motion to hire an independent consultant for a Town parking strategy this year — rescinding a decision to push it to 2021 due to the effects of the pandemic. The cost is estimated at between $45,000 and $60,000.

“This needs to be addressed sooner than later,” Haun said. “The decisions we make now will shape our community.”

Wink and Mayor Marvin Junkin strenuously disagreed, and were the only two to vote against it.

“[This expense will] put us further in the hole. It should be going into the budget for 2021. Regardless of savings, we’re losing over $400,000 —$400,000 to $800,000 — that has to be paid back next year through taxes,” Wink said, citing the Town’s own predicted revenue shortfalls for 2020.

Junkin echoed the concern over taxes.

“The last two years we have had budgets come in at [a seven per cent tax increase],” he said, “and we cannot bring another budget to this town, three in a row at seven per cent. They can’t afford it, we can’t afford it as a town. We’ve got $200,000 unfunded to the Cannabis Control Committee. I totally agree with Councillor Wink. I can’t see any reason why we can’t put this off.”

Those words fell on deaf ears, with Haun, Hildebrandt, Kore and Stewart voting to spend the money. Cribbs indicated there could be cash to help pay for it through the potential horse-trading of other items. Stewart also reminded council that all municipalities are still awaiting financial relief measures from the provincial and federal governments.

Pool to open this summer

Council unanimously agreed to allow the public pool in Marlene Stewart Streit Park to open at some point this summer, once provincial pandemic regulations allow.

“If we do get the provincial restrictions lifted, we would gradually phase in opening,” Director of Recreation, Culture and Wellness Vickie vanRavenswaay said. “Starting with public swims, and eventually swim lessons under the guidance of the lifesaving society.”

She said that the upgrades the pool has undergone actually help in this regard, as showers are now located outside. Under COVID-19 precautions, change and washrooms would remain closed.

The Town’s report on the matter cited information from the Centres for Disease Control that swimming pools — as long as they are properly cleaned and maintained using chlorine or bromine —pose no risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The pool sees 4,500 annual users according to the Town.

 

With reporting by Dave Burket and John Chick