Betty Disero, Vaughn Goettler and Gary Zalepa, mayoral candidates, debated litigation with developers at the Chamber of Commerce candidates meeting at the Royal George Theatre. (Penny Coles)
If there was a theme among candidates at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce debate held Wednesday, it was one of collaboration.
With 13 council candidates and three mayoral hopefuls for the upcoming Oct. 24 municipal election, balancing the needs of the local tourism industry with what works for residents was the focus of several questions, and collaboration of all stakeholders, including residents, was considered key in the answers.
President Minerva Ward explained the chamber is the voice of businesses in NOTL and the official destination marketing organization for the municipality. “We believe in responsible, sustainable tourism,” and market to drive high-end tourists to the town’s bed and breakfasts, wineries, hotels, national parks, restaurants, attractions and retailers, while at the same time being respectful of the physical and and psychological “carrying capacities” of NOTL.
Tourism businesses and residents “do enjoy a synergistic relationship and can and should exist harmoniously,” she said. “Scientifically-measured residents’ sentiments show that 85 per cent of residents understand NOTL can both attract a lot of visitors, and be a great place to live. We need to find solutions to issues, and not demonize an industry that contributes immensely to our tax and economic base and that provides amenities right here at our doorsteps.”
The debate was held at the Royal George Theatre, with each candidate having an opportunity to introduce themselves, and answer one question picked at random and read to them by board president Andrew Niven, who offered an opportunity for candidates to give a rebuttal to one question, and then a short wrap-up.
Glendale development, litigation with developers, traffic and parking, tourism growth, noise from tourism events, housing shortages, short-term rentals and taxes were all hot topics.
Council candidate Tim Balasiuk introduced himself as a life-long resident of NOTL interested in community planning, business and agricultural preservation, and the creation of a recreational plan and a tourism strategy. Asked about the unprecedented growth and significant development in Glendale, he said he thinks of that community “as our front door.”
A number of residents agree with the district plan in place, “which is huge,” he said, and the planned development “is not going to be a small community. It’s slated for another 15,000 residents, double what we have now.”
The plan includes green space, parks, a main street and housing for people coming to the area, and will also provide an opportunity to create “a really great space” for people coming to Niagara.
Incumbent Allan Bisback, spoke of the many challenges faced by this term of council, with plummeting revenue during the pandemic, and the number of issues council faced “that may have caused a lot of angst, but were in the best interest of all residents and communities for us to do so.”
He spoke of priorities in the next term, including heritage protection, investing in infrastructure in Glendale and through Virgil, and said that “despite the rumours, the town finances are in relatively good condition.”
He was asked about whether he would be willing to consider working with Parks Canada on a parking area for 500 cars, with a shuttle service to downtown. He said he would, and would include other organizations in the discussion, such as the NOTL Chamber of Commerce and Tourism NOTL. The issue would be a parcel of land that would handle that volume of cars, he said, and added that some Parks Canada land is protected, so would have to take into consideration “a solution for parking not only there, but at other locations.” There is also a role for the province to play, and other factors to consider, including the use of shuttles.
Council candidate John McCallum was also asked about parking.
He introduced himself as coming from Ottawa with his wife, having three adult children, and having worked for a large best-in-class global companies, in process and management issues, finding innovation solutions that are practical and be financially responsible.
“In the town operations I see examples where these disciplines are not being practised,” he said, including the transportation master plan and the efforts to find a future use for the hospital property.
Asked about supporting parking outside the heritage area with a shuttle, he spoke of a parking study in 2010 which identified an over-capacity situation on weekends, and which predicted then parking searches would take place in residential areas. “We have had 12 years to find a park and ride and I’m very much in favour.” The municipal accommodation tax could fund it. He suggested starting small, with trolleys from the community centre, and parking at wineries and other businesses which might be happy to participate so people in town “could be ferried around to various places.”
Residents could also use a hop-on hop-off service to get to the grocery store, he said. and if elected, he will be pressing council to get this done.
Sandra O’Connor, known for her passion on environmental issues — although by no means a single-issue councillor, she mentioned — agreed parking outside the heritage area and a hop-on hop-off system could be the answer. She suggested looking at it on a larger scale, connecting to Niagara Falls through WeGo, and the rest of the region with the internal transit system. With hovercrafts coming to Port Weller and electrical vehicles from there to NOTL, and visitors going to different locations in town, including the outlet mall, “it’s not one issue or one vehicle.” A lot of thought and action will be required to balance tourism as an economic driver, while also supporting residents, she said.
Balasiuk stepped up with a caution that it would be “unfortunate” to plan a parking station to accommodate people travelling by hovercraft, “when we don’t know whether or not this Hoverlink is going to happen.” He suggested holding off on building parking lots and taking over green space. “We could wait on that and see what other options are coming down the pipe.”
Balancing needs of tourism and residents, affordable housing
Gary Burroughs, who has been a lord mayor, regional council chair and a town councillor, is hoping for another term at the council table. He spoke of the town changing, and as a long-time resident and former business owner in the hospitality industry, said he wants to ensure it changes for the better.
Asked about balancing the needs of residents and tourism in relation to special events, such as concerts and fireworks displays, Burroughs said the issue is about noise, and also the number of such events. The town is trying to limit the number by location, he said. “We need to work together to tighten the noise bylaw,” which needs to be updated.”
Although it does not allow for amplified music at events, “I seem to hear amplified music every night,” and the solution will mean working together. “We all live with it, we all enjoy going to some of these events, but we have to get a handle on it. Our bylaw officers don’t work at night and they don’t work at night without a police escort. And we all know noise happens at night. We have to do better than that.”
Council candidates Erwin Wiens and Richard Mell offered rebuttals. Business owners are “excellent corporate citizens and continue to work well with us,” said Wiens. “These are excellent corporate citizens who live in our community.”
“Everything we have in NOTL is about balance,” said Mell. He spoke about events completely disappearing during COVID, and how much he enjoyed sitting at a friend’s house recently and hearing music from the Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre, picturing everyone smiling and enjoying the music. “I think we do have to have some kind of restrictions when we consider this within our community,” with so many residents living close to event venues, but added “we need to appreciate why we moved here, all the things we want to enjoy, and what NOTL has to offer.”
Council candidate Nick Ruller, a former fire chief of NOTL who with his wife is raising four children in Virgil, also addressed that balance when questioned about it specifically in regard to the wine industry, so it sustains a viable agricultural base and expands the town visitation experience.
He spoke of the need for a tourism strategy that would include the agricultural industry, and engaging residents “in identifying what is appropriate and what is complementary to the existing neighbourhoods.” It’s no secret there have been no complaints about music and fireworks, he said. “We need to approach it with an empathic perspective,” and ensure improvements that contribute “to the overall quality of life.”
Mayoral candidate Vaughn Goettler also weighed in, cautioning complaining about a winery if it’s following the noise bylaws, and suggesting if the winery and its concerts were there first, “we have to be careful where we pick to live.”
Adriana Cater-Vizzari introduced herself as “the rookie candidate,” with a strong desire to contribute to the leadership to the community. She spoke of growth in NOTL, including St. Davids, where she lives with her husband and four children. Her village “has more than tripled in size in the last decade. While this growth is exciting, it must be carefully managed,” with a growth strategy that is “strong, sustainable and balanced that takes into account all of NOTL.”
Her question addressed affordable housing “in a timely manner,” especially for those working in the service industry.
She agreed with the importance of growing affordable housing, and suggested the town must look to upper levels of government for funding, for guidance on what the numbers should be like, and how they will support the town — the solution has to go beyond municipal policies.
Ruller added to Cater-Vizzari’s comments, saying “what we really need is a mixture of housing,” that will include long-term rentals for service industry staff. “There are implications and unintended consequences of not having a good mixture of available rental housing, and we’ve seen that before.”
Short-term rentals impact the availability of long-term rentals, he said. “There’s definitely an opportunity to look at those as they are intertwined. There are direct relationships between the two and if we don’t get a handle on long-term rental housing availability we’re affecting the sustainability of the various industries we’re trying to support here.”
Incumbent Wendy Cheropita, who introduced herself as someone with solid business skills, and experience in marketing and branding, also spoke to the issue of affordable housing, saying long-term rentals are being turned into short-term accommodations. Asked what she would do about short-term rentals, she said they can be a blessing, when great B&B families are involved or local companies are managing them, and they offer “a variety of options for visitors when they’re traveling here.” On the other hand, there are a small number of “really bad actors” running them, or trying to get away without licensing them. Council has instituted a program called Granicus that goes after those that are unlicensed, which had numbered more than 100, and “now we’re down to just a couple.”
She also spoke of a new bylaw, not yet passed, that will address issues that have been annoying people, such as those with pools and hot tubs, and owners who don’t live in NOTL.
Bisback, who with his wife ran a B&B in town for 10 years, offered his perspective — that hosted B&Bs improve the experience in NOTL, with owner-operators actually acting as a concierge for NOTL,” and offering “a much-improved, different experience than some some of the hotels provide.”
Burroughs, who sat on the short-term rental committee, which came up with 33 recommendations for a new bylaw in a July 2021 report, said “it’s time we did something about it,” including making the important distinction between hosted and unhosted rentals, as described in the new bylaw.
Mell, with a wine tour company and a family member with a bed and breakfast, was also asked about short-term rentals, and how to work with them to ensure dialogue and consultation.
There is an issue of “demonizing the problem rather than trying to seek a viable solution,” he said. Short-term rentals are a “key part of our culture. Not everybody that comes to NOTL wants to stay in a hotel or a B&B. We have a lot of families that want to visit, that want to stay for a whole week.” NOTL also wants a diverse group of visitors, he added. He understands the fear of hollowing out neighbourhoods, “but I do feel we can tackle this in a more sustainable way,” suggesting a limit to licences in some areas. “I think we can make sure that the balance of short-term rentals and residents can be addressed fairly.”
Betty Disero, hoping for a second term, talked about the important balance of businesses, tourism and residents, including support of arts and culture. “We need more upscale tourism to make sure it works for tourists and residents,” she said.
Asked about protecting tourism into the future, she spoke of the tourism strategy and a collaborative effort with all stakeholders, businesses, tourism operators and residents, and dealing with issues such as parking, traffic and accountable accommodations that take care of their properties and don’t let people have big parties, as opposed to one person renting it and inviting 20 of their friends.
With respect to traffic and parking, she said, “I’m thrilled to have worked with Chris Morgan on the Hoverlink project,” with an electric shuttle coming into NOTL bringing people who will be renting bicycles, taking walks and tours, and getting a massive amount of traffic off local highways and streets.
She also spoke of an educational hub to keep high school students in NOTL, and assisted living for seniors. “So taking all of that into account should help our tourism industry and residents live compatibly.”
Katherine Reid, a council candidate from Queenston, introduced herself as a university graduate with a degree in geography and statistics.
One of her solutions for balancing tourism is to take it further afield by supporting agribusinesses, including wineries, craft breweries and farm markets. They need more recognition and to be easier to locate, she said, and putting those small businesses on the map would take tourists to locations where they won’t be such a bother to residents.
Erwin Wiens, hoping for a second term on council, is “born and bred in NOTL and married to my wife Dorothy for 31 years — we’ve been a team through this whole journey,” he said by way of introduction. He was also asked about tourism: is it
an asset or detriment to the taxpayer?
It’s an asset, he said. “You can see it by the flowers we have downtown, you can see it by the orchards and the vineyards, you can see it by the Niagara Parkway that you drive down, you can see it in the Old Town, you can see it everywhere.”
Compared to any other town in North America, it’s the prettiest, as a direct result of tourism. “We don’t exist without tourism. Grapes don’t exist if we don’t have wineries. There’s nothing else we can do with them. The flowers downtown are paid for by tourism. Taxes are expensive based on the mill rate, but relative to what’s happening and what you get for it.”
Tourism “made us prosperous and it made us strong, and we made a beautiful place for families,” he said. “We should be welcoming people to share what we have. We should be looking at it as something that is vibrant and exciting, with blessings beyond what we deserve.
“And that’s what we have to keep looking at, not as one industry taking something away. We’re all contributing, and every person matters.”
Mayoral candidate Gary Zalepa, entrepreneur and businessperson now with an executive role for a national real estate company that’s given him leadership experience, was asked about developing stricter bylaws rather than hiring additional bylaw officers for stricter enforcement.
“It’s the definition of insanity, to do something over an over again,” he said. “Government writes some rules, and they go, well, that didn’t work, so we’re just going to write some more rules, and then when that doesn’t work we’re looking at writing some more rules. I have a big problem with that. If you really want something to be enforced and you’re writing a rule for
a reason, you have to actually put the resources in to stand behind it.”
When the community says a particular item is worthy of a bylaw, “then I think they want it enforced. And it’s incumbent upon us as a council to ensure we resource staff adequately, and we provide them with the training and the resources necessary to properly navigate that with the offender.”
Cater-Vizzari added that increasing bylaws shows stakeholders feel unrepresented, because they feel that’s the only way they can have a voice, and be heard. A well-rounded council can make a difference, and make residents feel they can turn to council members to represent them if they have an issue, rather than requiring new bylaws.
Mayoral candidate Vaughn Goettler talked about people — seniors who need long-term care, youth who need jobs, business owners who need staff, and staff who can’t afford to live in town. He spoke of the need for housing and transportation for them, and a strategy to attract upscale tourism.
Asked whether the money the town spends on litigation with developers “is a loss to the town or a necessary evil,” Goettler said, “I see it as both. Winding up in litigation is a failure of communication, and usually comes from “an unclear set of guidelines and enforcement of those guidelines,” he said. “We have to fight for things that we believe in. But we need to make sure everybody has the rules clear at the beginning.” If the rules are clearly enforced, and supported by an official plan, “people know the rules of the game.” Developers are members of our community, have families here, and
people who work for them work here, he said. “They donate to causes just like all the rest of us do. So I don’t see why we can’t have a community development program that’s collaborative with our developers, and embraces them as part of our social fabric. If we don’t we’re going to fight. It’s up to us, and I’ll make sure we have clear rules.”
Disero disagreed with his stance, saying some lawsuits are “slip and fall,” normal for municipalities. But “the one everybody talks about” is a result of council deciding to designate part of the Randwood Estate as heritage, and “immediately the developer came forward, took us to court, took us to the Conservation Review Board, took us to LPAT (the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal). Our council has been responding and trying to protect those heritage areas from over-development. It’s not that we want to fight, and it’s not that we can negotiate it. What are we going to say? Okay, take half of the heritage and leave the other half? We had to defend our town, our heritage and the culture of our town.”
About a second big lawsuit, she said, “if a member of our council hadn’t sent a letter or an email to (developer) Rainer Hummel, he would not have a case to sue. Again, I’m not giving him money to blackmail our town.”
She told The Local after the meeting — some in the audience were confused about what she was referring to — that her comment referred to the interim control bylaw passed at a special council meeting held just days after the 2018 election, and the email “ damaged the town.” Hummel told The Local the email was sent months after the lawsuit was filed, and would not have affected his decision to sue.
Zalepa also responded to the question about litigation, saying the town “has abdicated the responsibility to set really clear growth policies, and my colleague candidate got it right in the fact that when the council and government of the day says to you, ‘I’m going to do my best to fight and protect for you,’ but they haven’t done the work to get the policies and the plans in place to successfully protect you then they’re actually just feeding you a line, and they’re spending your money just to make you feel better.” They know they’re not going to win, he added, “so you have to get up in front of it, get the policies done well. We need to work together as a community to identify what those policies can be, and be very clear with the development community what this town wants.”
Taxes and tax rebates
Alistair (AJ) Harlond charmed the audience in his introduction, saying he had performed on the Royal George stage as a thespian working with the Shaw Festival for two years.
He fell in love with the town, and when he went next door to Taylor’s for lunch he met and fell in love with his future wife, a fourth generation farmer. They live in Virgil and have raised two children in the community. “This is our forever home,” he said.
As the owner of an automotive shop, he talks to a lot of people, and sees the town becoming more polarized on issues. “I feel that does give me a unique advantage to be a great voice, and accountability to our council.”
A question about taxes, with 22 per cent coming from the general levy on commercial taxes, the highest percentage of any municipality in Niagara, while the residential general taxation levy was the lowest proportional percentage of any municipality in Niagara, stumped him.
“I feel I probably don’t have all the information I need to give you a credible answer,” he said, admitting to being very green. “But what we need to do is work collaboratively with our unique skill sets to offer solutions. By building a team in my business we get great answers. I hope you stay with me on this venture.”
McCallum rose to respond to the question, saying the larger portion of taxes in NOTL goes to the region, based on assessment. “We need to press the region. We are the third largest taxpayer to the region and we need to get more services for what we pay.”
Council candidate Maria Mavridis introduced herself as a long-time resident with family businesses in town. She has a daughter at Crossroads Public School, and said she would like to see more balanced recreational activities planned for both young and older residents.
“Our youth are the future of this town, and while we preserve the past, we need to also ensure that we set a future of the next generation.”
In response to a question about Heritage District home and commercial property owners receiving grants from the heritage tax rebate, she said she supports them. She has worked with a few local business owners in the Heritage District, and although the program is in place, “there’s a lot more that needs to be done to firm it up.”
It would allow business owners to fix and restore their buildings “with money that would come back to us. There are a lot of buildings on Queen Street that do need a little bit of maintenance, and we would all benefit from it, not just visitors, but residents as well.
“I’m in support of any credit the government wants to give,” she added.