By Marie Zettler
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Cobden — Work on a Short-Term Accommodations (STA) by-law for Whitewater Region has been temporarily put on hold.
At a special meeting of council on April 26, called to deal with business left over on the agenda of the April 19 regular meeting at the end of the allotted meeting time, councillors had the opportunity to react to a draft by-law prepared by municipal staff. The objective had been to present it for public review and comment as part of the township’ review of its Comprehensive Zoning By-law (ZB) which is already underway.
Clerk Carmen Miller presented a staff report on the draft by-law.
“An STA licensing by-law positions the township to better manage impacts on surrounding properties while maintaining the benefits associated with STAs,” she said. “The growing popularity of online rental platforms, such as Air BnB, Vacation Rental by Owner, and Booking.com, has contributed to the ease and availability of STAs in the community and worldwide.”
She explained Whitewater staff reached out to municipalities in Ontario and found that a number of them have enacted STA by-laws. These enable municipalities to perform such functions as fire and building inspections of STAs, to ensure parking requirements and appropriate sewer and septic services, and to provide control and penalties for non-conformance.
The report stated that, while there are economic benefits to hosts and the community, there is also potential for increases in nuisance factors such as theft, trespass, vandalism, litter and unruly behavior; a loss of community sense due to transient rental crowds, reduced housing availability resulting from properties being used for STAs, and increased housing costs resulting from the reduced housing availability.
Along with the possibility for a significant revenue stream for the municipality from application and licensing fees, licensing also carries with it a potential for liability.
“This would arise from the implementation of the by-law,” said Ms. Miller. “If municipal staff are reviewing site plans, fire plans etc., then we assume part of the liability. As council is aware, the municipality only needs to be found one per cent liable to be responsible for claims. Licensing STAs will open the municipality to significant liability and potential costs.”
Increased staffing costs to enforce the by-law also need to be considered, Ms. Miller said.
“Our township enforcement is reactive based, where a case is initiated upon receiving a complaint,” she said. “Using various techniques or methods, by-law enforcement staff attempt to substantiate or confirm the alleged contravention. This may require multiple visits or inspections of a property.”
If a complaint is substantiated, the property owner is provided with a written notice and has a timeline to conform. At this point non-compliant owners must cease to operate. If compliance is achieved, a follow-up inspection is required to ensure that compliance is maintained.
“Reactive-base enforcement …can be time-consuming and not always successful,” she said. “Without enforcement staffing and resources, and changes in operating hours, for example, evenings and weekends, community expectations with respect to STAs and resolving neighbourhood issues may not be met.”
Licensing fees are a major component to be determined. In municipalities in Ontario surveyed by Whitewater Region staff, new application costs range from $203 to $2,300.
“License fees should be set at a level that recovers, so that the system users are funding the program’s expenditures and the costs are not passed on to other residents,” Ms. Miller noted. “In addition, the license fee should be reasonable so that operators will willingly apply to the township for a license.”
AirDNA, which tracks the performance data of AirBnB rentals, reports that Whitewater Region had 66 AirBnBs advertising as of April 13, 2023.
The staff recommendation was the council receive the draft STA by-law and proceed to open it to public consultation alongside the Comprehensive Zoning By-law review.
Planner Alex Benzie said the proposed ZB now under review includes a definition of STAs as well as a set of provisions that can be used to regulate them.
“There are other elements beyond that, such as those in the by-law the clerk has presented,” she said. “It’s important that these be looked at together to make sure they speak to each other.”
Mayor Neil Nicholson noted there are no provisions around STAs in the current ZB.
“Essentially they don’t exist,” he said. “Should the Zoning By-law review end up including provisions for STAs, we will need something to guide us on how this is to be implemented, and this turns us back to the matter that the guidance to implement and enforce should be included in the review. The part presented by the clerk today will cease to exist if it is not included in the Comprehensive Zoning By-law review. We’re trying to align both processes to occur at the same time because they are so related.”
Ms. Miller clarified the purpose of the draft by-law she presented is to be a starting point for discussion.
“It was easier to get a draft together rather than to start working from nothing,” she said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all. It’s open for tweaking.”
Whitewater staff had met with representatives from Laurentian Valley, Arnprior and Greater Madawaska in a working group to review the draft by-law before it was presented to council.
Councillor Joe Trimm raised the question of whether, and by how much, township insurance costs would increase as a result of the increased liability associated with having such a by-law in place, and noted that apparently 66 STAs exist in Whitewater at present, for the most part, without a problem.
“In a sense this will be penalizing the good actors for the bad actors,” he said. “It will mean more staff time to make it work, and already we’re being criticized for our staff numbers and wages. I don’t think it’s something we can ignore. It’s just another example of how bureaucracy can get ahead of us.”
Councillor Mark Bell asked how issues such as parking, garbage, trespassing, unruly behavior and vandalism related to a STA would be handled vs. when any cottage or residence is involved.
“Could enforcement be done by people we have already contracted?” he asked.
Ms. Miller said that depends on whether the township has a by-law to regulate the activity.
“If the problem is unruly renters, we have nothing – no way to regulate that,” she said.
“I’m just wondering if there is some way of dealing with complaints without going to this top-heavy process,” he said.
Mayor Nicholson noted if another set of by-laws were created to deal with problems around STAs, their enforcement would also have to be paid for.
Deputy-Mayor Cathy Regier asked if any other municipalities in Renfrew County have an STA by-law and, if so, why their by-law was not being presented to Whitewater for review.
Ms. Miller replied that no other municipality in the county has one, but the three municipalities in the working group that reviewed the Whitewater draft are definitely looking into it.
Deputy-Mayor Regier said she would like to table the by-law until the fall.
“We have a lot on our plates right now,” she said. “May 11 (the date of the next open house in the Comprehensive Zoning By-law Review process) is 10 working days away. I don’t see why we need to rush this through. I’m not prepared to do it today, or May 11, or May 30 (the closing day for public comments in the ZB review). As I sit here today I can’t make an informed decision because I have too many questions. I’m not in favour of, or against the by-law – I just want to be informed.”
Ms. Miller said there would be plenty of time for more research if required.
“You don’t have to make a decision on this today,” she said. “The point of this was public consultation on the 11th. This won’t be passed in June, July, August or September. (If it is passed) it will probably be for implementation next year. We need to discuss this with the public for more options.”
Deputy-Mayor Regier moved to table the by-law until October 4 and asked for a recorded vote. It passed, with the deputy-mayor and Councillor Michael Moore voting in favour of tabling and Coun. Bell and Coun. Trimm opposing the motion. Mayor Nicholson broke the tie to vote in favour and the motion was carried.