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Niagara Falls
Sunday, April 14, 2024
Candidates square off in Queenston

The all-candidates meeting held in Queenston Wednesday, the first opportunity for the public to directly question those running in the Oct. 22 municipal election, remained polite, with no hint of the disrespect or controversy those who frequent social media sites might have expected.

All but one of the candidates were present, with 23 Town council hopefuls jammed on the stage of the former Laura Secord elementary school, a stage that was probably last used, and more appropriately sized, for the graduation of a class of about 20 Grade 3 students. Regional and mayoral candidates were seated at tables on the floor of the old gymnasium, which was packed, some audience members standing.

Hosted by the Queenston Residents Association and moderated by Rob and Helena Copeland, the meeting had been moved from the traditional location of the Queenston Library to the former elementary school to allow for more people, who filled 160 seats.

Janis Barlow, executive director of Willowbank School of the Restoration Arts, which operates the former elementary school as a second campus, opened the meeting by saying how pleased she was to be able to partner with the QRA and hopes to see more such partnerships. “This is your history and part of your future,” she said. “I hope we can continue to work together.”

Mark Cherney, the first of four candidates vying for one seat at the Regional council table to introduce himself, spoke of his love for the community and wanting it to remain the best place for his kids to grow up. He hopes to help NOTL get its fair share of Regional services, see smaller communities such as NOTL have a strong voice at the Region, and have local jobs go to local workers. He will support farmers, and protect the unique culture, architecture and heritage of the town, he said.

Chuck McShane, a local business person, long-time resident of NOTL and community volunteer, told the crowd he ran without success as a Progressive Conservative in the last provincial election. He is a Conservative, he said, but is open to ideas “from all sides.” He will tackle the issues that mean the most to the NOTL community, including finding a balance between development and heritage preservation, supporting more housing for seniors, and seeking better traffic management. And like voters, he said, he wants a Regional council that demonstrates transparency, integrity and accountability.

Dave Lepp, life-long resident of NOTL, brings experience to the table, with 18 years as a Town councillor and two terms as Regional representative. He was a founder of Lepp Farms, which evolved to St. Davids Produce, and is now director of Vineland Growers. He has helped residents work through issues in the past and get results, he said, and promised at the Regional level to “work for the good of all, regardless of their politics.” He wants to keep tax increases to below the cost of living, and to focus on safer walking, cycling and driving on Regional roads. Managing traffic at busy intersections is key, he said, he wants waterlines installed on Lakeshore Road, and “of course heritage preservation is essential.”

Also offering experience as a former Town councillor, Gary Zalepa Jr., now working in real estate corporate management, says he’s angry with what he sees going on at Regional government, and wants to get back into serving his community, this time at the Regional council table. He promised to work hard at improving co-operation between the Town, the Lord Mayor and Regional council, and to work with the Region on some of the current issues that haven’t been solved successfully, such as road safety and infrastructure. He also wants a timeline for capital investments in town, and more long-term care. “People should be able to age and continue to live in NOTL,” he said. He would work at improvements in transportation, including the GO train, and ensuring Niagara becomes more competitive at attracting investment and jobs.

“I’ve talked to you, I’ve listened to you and I’ve learned from you,” Betty Disero, the first of the mayoral candidates to speak, told the Queenston audience. She said the council term ended with a lot of unfinished business, and the the next term must come together “with a united voice,” with no more deferrels, and no delays to completing the Official Plan. “We need to know where we are, where we’re going, and what’s our plan.” She aims to work toward fixing traffic problems in Virgil and St. Davids, “which is bursting at the seams,” and finishing a master plan for Glendale. “For me it’s all about service,” she said, which means meeting with, talking to and listening to residents, and expecting everyone on council to do the same. About supporting the farming community, she said, “We have to listen to them, we have to celebrate them, and sometimes we have to leave them alone and let them get on with their farming.” She also spoke of the reasons to celebrate the town, reminding the audience of the many firsts in NOTL, including being the location of the first legislation enacted in the British empire that led to the abolishment of slavery, and “changed the lives of everyone around the world—and we live here.” The heritage of the town must be preserved, she said, while ensuring the quality of life residents have come to enjoy remains affordable and sustainable.

Daniel Turner was in his first year at Niagara District Secondary School when it closed, and was forced to finish his high school years out of town. He attended Brock University, and his first job after graduating was working as a data analyst at Statistics Ontario. He then became a teaching assistant at Brock University. He said he had no problem dealing with students misbehaving in class, and will know how to keep order at a council meeting. He’s also worked in the Niagara Region planning department, where he became frustrated with Regional government. As lord mayor, he would also have a seat at the Region. He promised to put residents first, and improve communication with staff. With the money that was spent on consulting regarding a tree bylaw, it should not have been rushed at the last minute, he said, also citing the St. Davids pool as another issue that has been handled badly. It’s seven years past its life expectancy, and again, at the last minute council approved spending money on a consultant, but during its term, didn’t pursue grants or other sources for funding to help pay for a new pool, he said. He promised to work toward a “precise, actionable and accountable” Official Plan, which he said is far from where it needs to be, despite the money that’s been spent on it.

Pat Darte, seeking a second term as lord mayor, talked about his roots in NOTL, with his four children and now grandchildren living nearby. He has experience in the business and tourism sector, he said, and has been serving the community for more than 20 years in other ways, including as a founder of the Niagara Community Foundation, FACS Family Foundation, and many other local projects. “After four years in office, I’m ready to continue my service to the community. I’ve learned a lot that will help me hit the ground running, in my role as mayor and Regional councillor.” The relationship between the Town and Region is critical for the future planning of NOTL, he said, referring to the Glendale plan, on which he has worked closely with the Region, and which will help take development pressure off the rest of NOTL. His priorities include the Official Plan and secondary plans, such as one for Queenston, protection of the Niagara River, traffic safety, and working on solving some of the problems Queenston residents are experiencing due to the relocation of the jet boat operation to the Queenston dock, including the buses going though the village each day. Queenston is also facing development issues, he said, and he will work to protect the lifestyle of the village community.

Candidate Lauren Goettler is hoping for a seat at the council table. She’s lived in town three years and has always loved it, she said. About a year ago things started to happen that worried her—including trees being cut down by developers. She talked of neighbourhoods fighting development, including Randwood Estate, and warned “that could be your fight next year.” The Town needs a completed Official Plan and a tree bylaw, and must include residents in the discussions. “If I could get rid of the jet boats I would,” she said. “I’m not sure we could. I think they belong more towards Niagara Falls.” She said she has no allegiance to anyone, other than NOTL. “I’m not doing this for a job,” she said, offering to donate her council salary back to the town or to a charity. “We need decisive people and I’m that person.”

Bernhard Peters introduced himself as a business owner and developer, who has also been involved in several charities, including one that helps the homeless. He believes honesty and smart budgeting are needed on council. He recalled the days in town before the Shaw Festival arrived, and wants to help preserve heritage, keeping up the look of the town to sustain a healthy tourism sector. He also wants to provide better public transportation connecting the NOTL communities, and proposed a train line, possibly with a steam engine to look historical, might be the solution.

Simon Bentall, owner of the Scottish Loft on Queen Street, has also owned a cottage rental business in town. He has degrees in hotel, catering and tourism management, has worked as a historical researcher and helped to designate heritage buildings. “When I get hold of something I won’t let go of it,” he said, adding he would work for all of NOTL, not just the Old Town. He’d like to see buses connecting all the communities that make up NOTL, he said, more car parking around the Old Town, and tougher consequences for unlicensed B&Bs.

Stooping below the ceiling of the former elementary school stage to speak, Erwin Wiens said he was born in NOTL, attended Laura Secord and then Niagara District Secondary School before heading off to Carleton University. He’s a grape grower with 160 acres of vineyards, part-owner of a small winery, and also a member of the Niagara Regional Police, where he’s had experience with traffic safety, crisis intervention and crisis management. As a grower, he understands specialty crops, the need for an irrigation system, and the importance of the agricultural industry as well as heritage preservation. “Lose the farm, lose the charm,” he said. He’s witnessed first-hand the smell from the sewage treatment plant in Queenston, and nearly been run over by buses as he jogs on the roads through the village, so understands the need to find solutions. The issues that are important in NOTL are “all about quality of life,” he said. “We can do this and we can maintain it.” He encouraged residents to get involved, take their voices to council, “and at the end of the day we can get results.”

“I believe in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said Gary Burroughs, hoping, after serving as lord mayor, and eight years as a Regional councillor with four of those as chair, to earn a seat as a Town councillor. “I’ve lived here and worked here for most of my life. I love what it is, but it is changing. I want to make it change for the better.” He wants to ensure developers work with the Town, on plans which work with existing infrastructure, and that fit the vision for the future. “And we need an official Plan that states that vision.” The town also needs to protect its trees, and have bylaws that support tourism and the infrastructure it requires to flourish, he said.

“I want to work for you and with you on council,” said candidate Sandra O’Connor. She was born and raised in Niagara, went to Brock University, and had a career in management with science organizations. Since coming to NOTL she has been active on many fronts as a volunteer, including health care, while getting up to speed on local issues “so I can be the best councillor I can be for you.” Preserving natural, cultural and built heritage is a priority, she said, as is protecting greenspace, trees, and addressing the issue of bus emissions. “We are the stewards of this great community,” she said. She also wants to build trust in the community, support unique and sustainable development, and safeguard the farming industry.

Norm Arsenault sees the Official Plan and transportation as priorities. He said the town is “floundering, and needs to get back on track.” The Randwood hotel development should be built according to the 2011 plan, he said, not what is currently proposed, and future development must make sense, reflecting the needs of the town, not the needs of developers. Taking cash in lieu of parking from developers “needs to disappear,” he said, and with the number of tourism buses increasing, bus parking needs to be looked at and a “hop-on, hop-off” option considered. “Streets need to be paved, and we need a new traffic master plan. Gridlock on Niagara Stone Road is already here.”

Gus Koroneos is a lifelong resident of Niagara now living in St. Davids with his wife and two little girls. “They are my inspiration,” he said. He grew up on a family farm in Smithville, received a science degree from the University of Waterloo, and then attended a denturist and hearing program in Toronto before opening practises in Virgil and in Niagara Falls. He’s running for council, he said, “because I want the next generation to see and feel all the beauty we have here in town.” He wants to preserve the cultural heritage and the agricultural industry, which fit with his diverse background in health, agriculture and business. “I’m beholden to no one except the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake. I won’t have to declare conflicts. I can take part in all discussions on NOTL town council.”

Anne Kurtz-Just is the third generation of the Kurtz family living and working in NOTL, she said, with a family farm that goes back 77 years. Farming diversification began in her grandmother’s kitchen, where she has memories of her grandmother making fruit-filled perogies. When Kurtz was old enough, she helped make jam with her mother to be sold at a roadside stand. “Today such markets are common,” she said, as her parents led the way in value-added agriculture. It’s time for such operations to be recognized in the Official Plan and for the sake of agriculture, residents and businesses, for the OP to be completed. Greenspace and heritage also “have to be cherished,” she said.

Terry Flynn remembers several controversial issues he’s debated over his years in politics—and although times change, he said, “we’re always going to have those issues and controversies.” He’s worked through the debates of moving the library, the purchase of Willowbank, closing Laura Secord, threats of development in Queenston, and also accomplishments such as a secondary plan for the village with participation from the strong ratepayers association to come up with solutions. He’s also been involved in the decision to build a new community centre, new firehall and the library complex in the Old Town, he said, and for the last term of council, he was chair of the Niagara District Airport Commission. He’s “really interested” in museums, and for the future would like to see a location specifically for all local artifacts.

Clare Cameron grew up in Jordan, surrounded by vineyards and orchards, and always thought of NOTL as a special place. In 2011 she and her husband moved to Virgil “and we’ve never looked back.” In the last four years she’s been active on several local committees and been an advocate for the public. Now she’s ready to put her unique education and experience in the municipal sector to work, with priorities that include heritage preservation, economic development, supporting agriculture, completing a strong OP, and having a more comprehensive look at transportation to connect communities.

Katherine Reid has worked in the wine industry and has been at Joseph’s Estate Winery “from day one,” as a winemaker. She is also heavily involved in the Lions organization, and sits on the Town’s agriculture committee and safety committee, which recently produced the successful map for safe walking and bicycling. She’s concerned about the importance of an agricultural map, which she would like to see improved. She has a good understanding of the planning process, she said, and smart growth, agricultural preservation and safe communities are her priorities.

With a career in retail and customer service, and running a successful business in NOTL, Allan Bisback said he understands the challenges of keeping customers happy. He wants to change the way the Town makes decisions, and feels an updated OP is critical. He supports preservation of heritage and culture, and managing a balance between development and heritage with a clear set of deadlines. Council, he said, needs to stop deferring such issues. Managing traffic safety for pedestrians and cyclists is also a priority, as is protecting the business sector and encouraging residents to “shop local.” The Town must have a qualified CAO to manage staff and a council that works as a team to make good decisions for residents, he added.

Mark Brown, with business and municipal political experience in Oakville, said he is running to be on council “because I care about this town.” He sees growth issues, traffic issues, community issues, “and people are feeling disenfranchised,” he said. “I’m confident solutions can be found with people in this room and others like you.” He suggests the Town consider “strategic acquisition” of heritage properties, consider options for traffic solutions and manage them appropriately, protect urban boundaries, and complete the Official Plan.

John Wiens has served one term on council as deputy lord mayor, a title he earned with the most votes in the 2014 election. He hopes to bring his 44 years of experience in the tourism and hospitality industry and and decades of community involvement to the table for another four years, along with his dedication to truth and “straight talk. It’s important to talk about issues, not around them,” he said. “My job is to serve people. As a councillor, that was my mandate.” He’s proud of his council record, to have been deputy lord mayor, and of his record of giving back to the community. The issues that will be important in the next term of council, he said, are the OP—no more delays—council pressing the Region to identify heritage areas to protect them from intensification, and the need to be fiscally responsibly while supporting “the quality of life we all enjoy.”

Jordon Williams grew up in Niagara, and has strong business and family ties in the region—he’s seen what works and what doesn’t work. He has worked for non-governmental agencies and government, and behind the scenes in federal and provincial politics, and moved back to NOTL, which he loves, but “I look around and see a lot of troubling issues.” He would bring a new, fresh voice to council, and would like to see “smart” development control, keeping taxes low and making sure “everything we spend is on something we need.”

Martin Mazza, standing in the old gym in the former Laura Secord school, said “this reminds me of my first time here, when we were completing the Queenston Secondary Plan.” Those discussions led to the plans for the future of the village, including the school property—a portion of which is now a village park, and to saying no to townhouses in Queenston, to restrict development to single-family homes, he said. “Our work is not done in Queenston,” and his is not done on council, he said—taxes need to be kept low, there will be a need for a new CAO, and the impact of the jet boat operation moving to Queenston, which is a real concern for residents, must be addressed. “Queenston is a community, a small village with a wish to preserve what it has, and I get that,” he said. “I’ve been a business owner in Virgil for 20 years, and I do deliver.”

Andrew Niven grew up in NOTL, works in NOTL, and is raising a family in NOTL. He wants to work with residents in a “united partnership,” and to work at the Regional level by sitting on Regional committees. “It’s a critical time in town,” he said, and he will speak up for what’s best for the town and not support the status quo. He will support farming, the wine industry, balanced economic growth and improved infrastructure. “To resolve the issues of the town, we have to work together.”

Wendy Cheropita, born and raised in Niagara, has worked in the wine industry and today consults in strategic planning for small businesses. She sees the population of NOTL aging, a growth in the wine industry, “fabulous restaurants and concerts, but sadly, things are changing.” Developers are not respecting the quality of life in NOTL, she said. “We have to honour the past, respect the present and imagine the future,” with a strict building code, architectural standards and complete master and secondary plans. “We need to listen to residents, and work in collaboration while we build plans for the future.”

A lifelong resident of NOTL and former town councillor, Dennis Dick sits on several boards and committees, including the committee of adjustment, and chairs the agricultural committee. The OP needs to be reviewed and updated, he said, including incorporating current provincial legislation, which mandates infilling and intensification that can pose difficulties for small municipalities — the reason NOTL has lost most of its Ontario Municipal Board appeals of inappropriate development. The Secondary Plan for Queenston, with urban design tools and land-use planning, also needs to be reviewed and updated, he said. He would like to see the next council investigate a new planning process, which takes specific areas in a community and implements appropriate planning policies to mitigate concerns that particular area faces.

Paolo Miele, a local business owner with a family background in farming, spoke of the much mentioned OP, which he says council tried diligently to update. “It was not council that created the delay, it was because of staffing issues,” he said. Council worked together, but couldn’t get certain things done because of the timing. He said council needs “someone who can be loud and stand up for issues.” Traffic safety is one of his priorities, he said. “I will continue to be an advocate for all of Niagara-on-the-Lake, not just the Old Town.”

Crispin Bottomley has lived in Queenston most of his life, and began his community involvement at a young age. He became involved in his first OMB hearing before he was out of high school, he said. He has served on the parking committee and the active transportation committee, worked in tourism and hospitality, and now works for the Community Transport Group in town. His decades of community involvement “led me here.” Council and staff need to work better and listen better to residents and what they want, and council needs to support agriculture and heritage preservation, and promote economic growth. In Queenston, “we need to make sure things stay the way they are for our village.” He suggested the jet boat operation impact will need to be managed, and the Queenston sewage plant repaired, infilling limited and lot sizes controlled. In St. Davids, traffic problems need solutions. “But most of all I want residents to feel this is your town, and you should all be proud of it.”

Stuart McCormack wrapped up the introductions of candidates almost two hours after the meeting started, paraphrasing W.C Fields when he joked that “no good can come” of being the last candidate to speak. He related his experience as a lawyer for a major law firm in Ottawa, managing partners and the partnership, and working on behalf of both the provincial and federal governments. He is interested in a new community planning system, with a NOTL building code and mandated zoning bylaws. The new council, he said, will have to manage a $30 million budget with raises to town staff of 4.5 per cent starting next year. Rather than talking about himself, which he has said makes him uncomfortable, McCormack chose to use his time to urge voters to pick candidates who are prepared to work together as a team, and are best qualified for the job.

It was an appropriate note on which to end the speeches, with the meeting turned over to the audience to ask questions of particular candidates. Zalepa, running for Regional councillor, was asked about supporting visual arts. He said it’s important for the region to have an integrated strategy for culture, and to look at attracting people not just for wine and hospitality but for the arts as well.

Zalepa, also asked to explain further his comment about Niagara’s lack of competitiveness, explained Niagara isn’t getting the investments of other regions, and he wants to look at why, to make sure Niagara becomes attractive for investors and gets the jobs the region wants.

Regional candidate McShane, asked if he would support a smaller Regional council, staying at its current size or possibly having no Regional council at all, said he would not vote the “party line,” he would vote according to the will of his constituents. “I don’t tow party lines. I do what’s best for Niagara.”

Mayoral candidate Disero, asked her position on development in Queenston, said she’s a supporter of the permit development system, which allows council and residents to work out a community plan that sets out what can be developed before any permits are issued, and any development would have to meet local approval. She also suggested strengthening the village’s Secondary Plan.

In response to a question regarding an indoor pool, Disero said she doesn’t think the community can afford to build and maintain one yet. The operating cost would mean a four per cent tax increase, she said. She would support an outdoor pool for St. Davids, but there are too many other things to do with the money it would cost to maintain an indoor pool. “I don’t see it as a priority at this point.”

Darte, asked about Regional roads and the Region’s lack of interest in looking after NOTL, said in the next two to three years the Region is looking at a third lane on Niagara Stone Road, between Niagara Motors and East and West Line, which should ease congestion, and he would like to see a complete turning lane from Niagara Stone Road on to East and West Line, to direct traffic off Niagara Stone Road.

Asked what NOTL could do to “educate the Niagara Escarpment Commission with regards to Queenston and the jet boat operation,” Darte said the property has been in turmoil for some time, and that he believes it’s more of a “river issue than an escarpment issue.”

O’Connor, Town council candidate, was asked if she supports a tree bylaw that would require a resident to acquire a permit, at a cost, to remove a tree on private property. O’Connor said while most agree a tree bylaw is aimed at developers, “we’re trying to have people think about how to replace a tree they take down. It’s a plan for the future.” There are ways to improve the system suggested in the bylaw council recently deferred, she said, so residents don’t have to apply for a permit or pay for an arborist.

Bentall, who talked about the need to address unlicensed B&Bs, was asked by a Queenston resident who has two of them nearby what could be done about it. Part of Bentall’s solution is to have a Town bylaw officer, full- or part-time as needed, to address that particular problem. He also suggested the issue has to be addressed for all NOTL communities by looking at limiting the number of B&Bs in certain areas.

Bisback, asked about how to solve problems related to winery tourists on bicycles, said he has a vision of connecting bike paths to the Niagara River Parkway. Some of the concessions and lines present a danger for cyclists, with traffic travelling at highway speeds, he saie, and he’d like to see the town completely connected by bike paths.

Council candidate Mark Brown was asked about a comment he had made during his introduction regarding a “maximum” number of tourists the town could handle. He explained the town is approaching three million tourists a year, and there’s no reason to think that number won’t increase, suggesting at some point, possibly at four million, the town may have to say “too much. And when you do, what do you do about it? I think we need to start talking about it now,” he said, “so we’re able to manage it.”

With the meeting wrapping up sooner than expected—moderator Rob Copeland was quick to cut off audience members who went on too long or seemed to be offering an opinion rather than posing a question, and timer Helena Copeland rang a bell loud enough to have quieted even the noisiest of students in the historic school building—the Queenston Residents Association was able to offer candidates more time for a meet-and-greet, proving that, despite problems anticipated and with rules clearly set out, 30 candidates could be handled efficiently and effectively in a meeting of a little more than three hours.

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