Coun. Gary Burroughs has lived in the Old Town for almost 60 years, and has seen a lot of changes, especially in the growth of the tourism industry.
He likes to tell the story of his long-time friend Gerry Wooll, Lord Mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake in the ’60s, who passed away in 2007. Wooll, in an effort while mayor to encourage visitors to Queen Street, asked anyone who had a spare car to park it on the street, making it look busier than it was. “And it worked,” says Burroughs, who has witnessed the enormous growth in the town as a tourism destination since then. For many years he was part of it as the former owner of the Oban Inn, which he took over from his parents in 1975, and sold in 1999.
As visitors began to come to town, many attracted by the Shaw Festival, the hotel industry grew, and along with it came the proliferation of bed and breakfasts, a popular choice for tourists looking for accommodations. More recently has come an increase in cottage rentals, country inns and villas, defined by the town according to the number of rooms.
Burroughs says the variety of accommodations encourages people to stay in town longer, offering more affordable prices, especially for families. That’s important for the Shaw, the restaurants, wineries, and other amenities in town residents enjoy, but on their own wouldn’t be enough to support those businesses year round — that has become painfully obvious during the arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic travel restrictions.
“I think we’re very fortunate to have them,” says Burroughs.
When the town formed a short-term rental committee early in 2021, to look at possible changes in the SRT licensing bylaw that could potentially find solutions to perceived problems in the industry, Burroughs wanted to be part of it. He and Coun. Norm Arsenault represented council on the committee, with residents, some who were owners of STRs, and some who were not, making up the rest of the membership. The two councillors, Burroughs says, “were just there to help, not running the committee.”
The committee began meeting weekly in March, and continued until the summer, when their report, with 33 recommendations, was presented to council mid-July.
It’s “a fabulous report,” says Burroughs, and is now in the hands of town staff, who will make their own recommendations to council, based on the information they’ve received.
The staff report, and council’s actions in response, can’t come soon enough, he says, although he’s not sure of the timeline. “I’m not thrilled that we haven’t moved it forward yet.”
Once that report goes to council, “we can start making important changes to bylaws, based on the recommendations, that will fix short-term rentals.”
Burroughs says for decades, no records were kept of complaints about the accommodation sector, which made it difficult to quantify the problems — the committee was working with anecdotal information and some documentation from the public. He says looking at what evidence the committee could find, complaints have been rare. “Are there some bad ones? Yes,” he says. “How big a problem are they? We’re finding out they’re not.”
One of the recommendations of the committee is to redefine B&Bs and other short-term rentals as hosted and unhosted — not surprisingly, when looking at the limited data the town has collected, it appears that more complaints are received in unhosted STRs. “This seems logical as the renters’ activities are unsupervised for the most part. There are many well-managed unhosted STRs, and a minority that are not. These are the ones that create negativity about the industry,” the committee’s report says.
Most issues arise only from unhosted, but unlicensed rentals, says Burroughs, and the town has begun to crack down on those, with the hiring of a firm that checks advertisements to see who is licensed and who isn’t, and tracks any complaints received.
The committee also looked at noise complaints, over-licensing within certain areas, the impact of STRs on affordable housing, and enforcement issues.
But again, says Burroughs, there isn’t data available to help quantify those problems.
Most issues, such as excessive noise, occur after hours and on weekends, when there is no bylaw enforcement available, and the Niagara Regional Police would be called. In its report, the committee says it checked with NRPS, and records indicate that very few charges, if any, are laid by the police, leaving residents “very frustrated and unable to enjoy their homes.”
John Buchanan is a Garrison Village resident, and one of those frustrated by a very disruptive neighbouring short-term rental used as a party house.
The noise, parking violations and garbage issues were left largely uncontrolled by the town, despite neighbours complaining for years about it. Buchanan moved to NOTL in 2019, and last summer he too began registering his concerns with the town, and lobbying for some action with his neighbours, he says. As a result, he learned there was a “small number of other problem STRs in NOTL,” including some with other neighbours who joined Buchanan’s initiative to have the town address their concerns.
Toward the end of 2020, he explains, the town launched one of its Join the Conversation online events, looking for comments and concerns from the public. He says there were 268 responses received; the majority discounting a suggestion made that STRs should also be principal residences. Of the comments, 33 concerned enforcement, party houses and noise issues, he says.
Buchanan says he and his family have stayed at various kinds of accommodations in several places, including Europe, the Caribbean, and in NOTL, including STRs, and enjoyed having the choice.
With his personal experience of the problems caused by the neighbouring STR, and an owner unwilling to address the concerns, when he learned about the formation of a committee and its mandate to review the town’s licensing bylaw and provide recommendations to council, he applied to sit on the committee and was accepted.
After “hundreds of hours” reviewing the town’s existing bylaw, the committee came up with a number of recommendations that were just “fine-tuning” what was already in place, and others that suggested substantial changes.
Although there was discussion about the need for more enforcement, Buchanan suggested existing enforcement staff need to write “strong letters” to rental owners not in compliance with town legislation, with escalating fines in place if non-compliance continues.
The committee report encourages hosted STRs, occupied by the owner, versus unhosted, would bring stability and a sense of community to neighbourhoods where they exist.
The committee also recognizes the STR industry “is critical to supporting the local businesses in NOTL by providing convenient accommodations close to the attractions, so that tourists can enjoy memorable experiences in our town.” The recommendations are intended “to strike the right balance,” supporting the tourism economy while respecting neighbourhoods.
To avoid commercialization of unhosted rentals, the committee has included recommendations suggesting that corporations not be allowed licences, and putting limits on the number of licences one can possess. “The intent is to ensure that a person is accountable for the actions of the STR,” the report says.
The committee also stated “there should be no leniency, and unlicensed operators should be charged and advised to cease operations immediately.”
With the help of Granicus, the company contracted by the town to investigate unlicensed rental accommodations — and, importantly, funded through the fees of licensed rentals, not by taxpayers — that is already happening, with some unlicensed rentals recently shut down, says Burroughs.
Since mid-July, Granicus has been looking for people advertising without a licence. They are being contacted, and “closed down left, right and centre,” says Burroughs. He knows of a couple of rentals that were considered party houses, and were not only shut down, but have since been sold. “We’re getting rid of the bad apples,” he says.
The committee also asked that council collect data to make changes to bylaws, if necessary, in response to complaints and concerns, such as the number of STRs threatening neighbourhood communities, says Burroughs.
Since the majority of complaints relate to “party houses” which are typically unhosted, and with a large number of rooms, the committee recommends limiting the number of bedrooms in rentals, to eliminate those nuisance complaints.
Granicus is also helping to create records of complaints, which will give the town the data needed to make policy changes. When complaints are received, the goal is to reach out to those responsible and rectify any problems within 45 minutes of contact.
But without sufficient bylaw enforcement, and police who don’t consider those complaints a priority, the committee “strongly recommends” council explore cost-effective means of providing after-hours enforcement.
For the STR program to be self-funding, and fees based on a cost-recovery basis, staff should build a budget that reflects the revenues and expenses, says the report. Licence fees should be based on the budget, with activities such as inspections included in the budget. Should “council decide to expand municipal law enforcement services to include after-hours and weekend services, an appropriate portion of the costs could be assigned to the STR budget,” the report says.
Also, in September, council approved the implementation of an Administrative Monetary Penalty System (AMPS) for non-compliance of certain town bylaws, to provide a more efficient process for payment, appeal and collection of penalties, which has been an issue in collecting fines for STR infractions. Noise, nuisance, and short-term rental bylaws are included.
While there are problem STRs, says Buchanan, he believes it’s not a long list — that about 95 per cent are well-run, respect town bylaws, and provide an important service to the tourism sector. Like Burroughs, he believes those renting such accommodations provide value to the town and local businesses, staying longer and spending more.
The annoying issues of the other five per cent are being addressed, he adds.
The charge of “hollowing-out” of neighbourhoods by STRs, if data supports that and it can be quantified, is also easily addressed, by restricting the number of licences per town block, Buchanan says.
And with Marnie Cluckie, the CAO in town, at the helm, Buchanan adds, he is confident she will deliver the necessary leadership expected as the STR recommendations move through the process.