Some challenges facing Pelham, and how to address them

Editor’s note: The Voice has invited each Ward 1 by-election candidate to submit an opinion-editorial on the theme of their choice. Find those of other candidates here.

A short tribute

Sadly, this by-election is occasioned by the passing of Councillor Mike Ciolfi. I only had the pleasure of meeting Mike a few times while campaigning in 2018, but was consistently impressed by his steady, warm and personal presence. Mike was known to be hard worker for his constituents and was a stabilizing influence on Town Council. He is sorely missed. Those of us aspiring to fill his shoes have a very high standard to meet indeed.

Harold Lasswell somewhat famously defined politics as the study of “who gets what, when, and how.” Ideally, in a democracy the deciding factor is what citizens want, and yet we consistently see outside priorities crowding in. We were sold a community centre guaranteed not to raise taxes. What we bought is at least $33 million in debentures that must be paid out of our taxes until maturity in 2050, plus a depletion of $17 million in previously accumulated reserves. That no one wanted to be burdened by such a liability was made abundantly clear in the last election. And yet, here we are, threatened by much higher taxes as a result. If we want to avoid that eventuality, we must be ever alert to any new revenue sources. The three most important issues to residents of Ward 1, then, are taxes, uncontrolled development, and industrial grow-op light and air pollution. What all have in common is the frustration of voters in determining how these issues play out in our community. Specifically, it seems that it is outsider interests that prevail over what we want.

Our corporate grow-op problem as a potential revenue source

Citizens want to preserve and build upon our natural and agricultural environments, but no one is particularly enthused about outside corporations invading our town and spewing light and air pollution, all while making off with billions of dollars of revenue at our expense. It is reasonably clear that we were targeted because of our relative lack of regulation compared to other municipalities that were passed over. We are now catching up on that front thanks in no small part to volunteer efforts, and regulations are finally starting to appear. What is still needed, however, are regulatory teeth to ensure compliance with these new regulations.

I propose that we thoroughly investigate the possibility of gaining control of the growing permits of what is now a legal crop. Currently, the province issues those permits, but the ironically named “CannTrust” has provided us with clear evidence that the provincial system of control is an abject failure. I suggest that we (and any other similarly impacted municipalities that may want to join us) are in a strong position to demand the downloading of the distribution of the permits already within our municipality. We could then offer those same permits to any of our own farmers who might want to diversify from crops generally retailing at $5/lb, into a legal crop retailing at $5,000/lb. Odour concentrations stand to be greatly reduced because local farmers would be much more likely to be responsive to our concerns than outside corporations, on the same logic that owner/occupied B&Bs are also more responsive to concerns than those run by absentee landlords motivated only by profit. Even then, should any one farmer still have persistent problems, the fact that the Town retains ownership of the permits means they could be transferred on to applicants more successful in controlling any issues of community concern.

Recalling our intent to be alert to new revenue sources, the fact that we control a crop retailing at a price a thousand-fold higher than other produce means that there are now margins to discuss. Farmers would be willing to share some of the profit margins with us in exchange for permits that give them access to those profits. Periodic bidding in an open market for whatever permits may become available would establish a market price for that opportunity. Instead of discussing mere taxes based upon properties zoning, we would receive some fraction of a multi-billion dollar annual cash flow currently being siphoned out of our local economy by non-compliant corporations. This market price could reasonable be anticipated to greatly exceed anything currently under consideration, even assuming an upgrade to industrial zoning. Once a free market price for the quota is established, that price would be applied across the board to all permit holders. Our farmers tend to run much leaner operations than top-heavy corporations and by that fact alone would likely outbid them for the permits.

Everyone wins (with the possible exception of the apparently deaf corporations). Farmers’ bottom lines would be much healthier and would therefore be less inclined to sell their land to developers. The Town would get a new source of revenue accelerating the paying down of our community centre and by that same token greatly reducing the pressure to increase our property taxes. Imagine that! All of these benefits would flow directly from doing the right thing and taking care of our farmers first, rather than pandering to outside corporations with a demonstrated contempt for our legitimate concerns.

We need to be prepared for the possibility of resistance to such a change. Senior levels of government are generally loath to give up control of jurisdiction, even though we have a strong case for doing so. In that event, we will likely want to act together with other municipalities through the agency of the Ontario Federation of Municipalities whose function is to lobby senior levels of government in precisely these sets of circumstances. The costs of proceeding would be shared by affected municipalities, if not by all municipalities in Ontario. Having such resources backing this proposal would bolster a posture more likely to succeed without having to actually resort to litigation. This course of action may indeed be difficult, but it is my belief that no stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of lower taxes, and in particular when such a course dovetails so elegantly in improving our community in number of other ways.

Our development problem

As a Political Science major I know that the regulatory functions of the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) are being downloaded to municipalities in a provincial effort to force much higher-density development upon us. As an observant 38-year resident of our town, I know that the current allowable height throughout our town is 10 storeys, and that an 8-storey apartment block has already been approved behind the Fonthill Food Basics. Owing to my university training in provincial/municipal relations, I also know that once a municipality approves an 8-storey building we lose control at that threshold. Having conceded that height, provincial jurisdiction takes over and regulations permitting the developer to build up to 12 storeys then prevail, with no municipal recourse.

Similarly, because I am concerned with preserving the character of our town, I am aware that a new development of over 230 acres is planned for Fenwick, bounded by Memorial Dr., Cream St., Welland Rd., and Balfour. Over 800 units are envisaged with a potential increase in population of over 2,400 in a village of only 2,000. This is nothing like a natural rate of growth. This is explosive growth. Further, if our experience with the 450 acre development in East Fonthill is any indication, more inspired types of development are needed to avoid further urban sprawl.

Having specialized in the production of classical architectural designs, I know that higher densities can be achieved much more attractively than is currently practiced in most urban environments (Google “Royal Crescent, images” for one available option highlighting our British heritage). If elected, I will move to return the maximum building height back down to the previous 5-storeys throughout our municipality, and then advocate for more creative alternatives to the American-style urban sprawl that is a perennial threat to the character of our community. Astute investors would not likely be surprised to learn that in making the necessary architectural improvements that margins actually increase due to higher bids for a more attractive product now occupying a smaller footprint. But this would require more effort to execute, and so convention prevails.

For their part, regulatory bodies like our Town Council need to be more open to returning to a mixed zoning by strata, with commercial uses below and complementary uses above. We need to find ways of accommodating our young adults and provide them with ways of building home equity. Small leasable studios with an option to buy located above our strip malls and big box stores are a missed opportunity, but may still be possible. Likewise, we need to begin requiring that parking be placed underground as a matter of course, preserving green pedestrian spaces at grade level. More community-minded corporations like the LCBO will accommodate community concerns and build architecturally appropriate buildings just like they did in NOTL, rather than the “penitentiary” that we are now saddled with in our town. We need only learn to ask for what we want. Infill development utilizing existing roads is one thing, but paving over the interiors of our major rural agricultural blocks with roads in pursuit of purported “development” is quite another.

We need to have an adult conversation within our community to determine what direction we would like to take. I have started that conversation here and would be pleased to foster that discussion moving forward. Accordingly, I have started a Facebook Forum page specifically for residents of Ward 1 to connect and advocate more effectively. This can be accessed at “Town of Pelham Ward 1 Community Forum” in your Facebook search bar. At issue is the ownership of the appearance and character of our town, as distinct from the ownership of lands assembled for development. We need to understand the effect of pressures generated by changes in zoning from agricultural uses to any other use. When land use is changed, property values skyrocket several orders of magnitude from $20,000/acre to several million/acre. Clearly, the time to insist upon what we want is prior to any change in zoning. Only candidates demonstrating an understanding of these issues and prepared to commit to insisting upon what we want should be considered electable if we are serious about our community objectives. To waffle on this point by suggesting that “some conventional development is okay,” is to give away the game entirely right at the outset. We can no longer afford to think this way. All development must have a substantial agricultural component at its core, and if at all possible, agricultural production tuned to maximize production in the dead of winter to protect against the next global virus, which may well be borne in imported food products. Conventional development may have been acceptable in an archaic context where we were under existential threat from the environment. Today the shoe is on the other foot where if we are not careful, it is we who are at risk of becoming a plague upon the face of the earth. It is our local jurisdiction that controls land use, and we must choose wisely and with foresight to preserve what is left for our children. Only then can we reasonably expect to control what we get, and where and when we get it.

Throughout I have refrained from touting my qualities in the abstract in favour of laying out concrete ways and means of achieving our goals. I have never been impressed with the self-assessments of candidates when I am in the position of the voter, preferring to come to my own conclusions based on such concrete evidence. I am banking on others within our community being no more credulous than I.

Whether or not any other candidate has the required combination of skill sets and experience, or even the tenacity required to dig up the requisite information, is an open question. We need all of these skill sets represented at our council table in the coming changes in our regulatory environment if we are to preserve what makes our Town unique.

 

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