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Niagara Falls
Saturday, April 13, 2024
Candidates talk about phragmites, swimming pool at last meeting before election
At the last all-candidates meeting before Monday’s municipal election, all 24 town council hopefuls squeezed into the front of the St. Davids Lions hall to face residents with their last round of questions on local issues such as preserving greenspace, building am new pool and eradicating phragmites.
But before the meeting began, Greg Dell, president of the St. Davids Ratepayers Association, tackled the issue of attack ads against certain candidates — three incumbents — in a local newspaper, placed by a local resident. Dell used words such as repugnent, vicious and cowardly to describe the ads, and said later he felt the response of candidates and audience members indicated they agreed.
Candidates were then given a brief opportunity to introduce themselves, before responding to questions from the ratepayers association and members of the audience, with a selection of candidates chosen to answer.
Terry Flynn introduced himself as a resident who is building a house in St. Davids, with his family nearby, and he loves the location. “This is now home.” He understands local issues, such as traffic safety and the swimming pool. St. Davids has growing pains, he said, promising to took at the community as it grows, the grounds the municipality owns, and to look at a secondary plan to see what the village needs.
Paolo Miele is also a new resident in St. Davids, and promised residents Mewburn Bridge, which should alleviate traffic problems, will be open some time next summer. It’s been a pleasure to serve St. Davids residents, he said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do still.” He supports a new pool and a new meeting space, possibly in conjunction with the pool and working with St. Davids residents and the St. Davids Lions. The solution for traffic will mean collaborating with the Region, the Town and the community. 
Martin Mazza said he cares as much for the St. Davids community as for Virgil, Queenston and all communities in town. The pool needs addressing, he said, and with at least four new councillors to be elected, the next council needs some returning councillors for continuity and to have some representatives who understand the past and the needs of the community.
John Wiens said he is committed and ready to embrace the challenges and needs of a councillor, working with honesty and integrity at the council table. He also believes in the importance of truth, straight talk and promises to be open, receptive, and responsible.
Gus Koroneos is also a St. Davids resident, with his wife and two little girls who have used the St. Davids pools for the last two summers, and he is sure council will do something about that — it was gifted to the community from the Lions Club, he said. “It would be a shame to lose it.” He believes the problems of NOTL today are caused by the extension of the QEW, which brought development to the area and took thousands of acres of agricultural land out of production. There should be no further expansion of urban boundaries, he said, and the Town needs to protect its farmland for future generations.
Andrew Niven is also a resident of St. Davids, raising his young family there, with his in-laws, the owners of Niagara Trailers, just down the road. St. Davids has grown too big, too quickly, he said, and needs appropriate development guidelines, heritiage protection, traffic solutions, sidewalks and bike paths, control for cannabis development including immediate odour control, and a new pool. 
Dennis Dick supports building a new pool that is going to happen, and a roundabout for St. Davids — the region is still deciding on a roundabout or traffic signals, and one or the other is going to happen, he said. The village needs a secondary plan — there are urban design guidelines, but they are just guidelines, he said.
Katherine Reid works in the wine industry, loves the area, and volunteers with the Lions Club. She has been region chair twice, and has taken a step back from volunteering to spend more time working for the community. She is on the agricultural and safety committees, and St. Davids definitley needs traffic control, she said.
Anne Kurtz-Just has a background in farming, and although there are many important issues, such as the need for a completed Official Plan, the election is about character on council, with voters having confidence in a council that will lead through the challenges of today and the future. She has the necessary character, she said, with perseverance and determination.
Wendy Cheropita has spent her career in the wine industry and has seen beautiful communities that developed around the wine industry and tourism. NOTL is a special place but issues are starting to become more complex and challenging, she said. Council needs to listen to residents, fix the pool and address the traffic situation, as well as resolving issues with improperly installed grinder pumps and taking responsibility for them. 
Bernhard Peters also would support a new pool, and strongly agrees there has to be a solution for traffic. He has become a fan of the idea of a roundabout and would like to see a truck bypass, as well as a smaller roundabout at the bottom of the hill from Niagara Falls to slow traffic. A community centre sounds great, he said, and the Town should go looking for grant money to help pay for it.
Erwin Wiens, a local grape farmer and a police officer, said all candidates share the same issues, all care about quality of life, want a new pool, and to preserve agriculture. To accomplish all their goals, collaboration is required — councillors need to listen to residents and each other. Working as a police office on a tactical task force he has learned about working as a team. Also having respect for others, including the mayor and town staffi, is needed to move forward, he said.
Terry Davis said he’s been listening to St. Davids residents’ concern about greenspace, the pool, future development, traffic overload, the dearth of pubilc trasit and the odours from growing cannabis. He feels the needs of St. Davids are not being heard, and will work to ensure town facilites and services meet the needs of residents in each community.
Stuart McCormack, a lawyer who managed a large Ottawa law firm, said the first thing council needs to do is avoid ad hoc development, and needs a completed Official Plan and the community planning permit system to create a new set of standards for appropriate development. He urged voters to do their due diligence and vote for candidates who are the most qualified. “Make sure you vote, because frankly we need it.”
Jordon Williams said although change is inevitable and can be good, “if we are not careful the GTA will come here.” He will not be beholden to anyone, he said, and will only represent the best interests of residents.
Gary Burroughs too said the town is changing, but some of what he sees worries him, and he hopes to make a difference on council. The Town needs to do a better job of explaining where its money comes from and where it’s spent, he said. “I understand how the Town works, and how the Town and the Region should work together. Change is inevitable, it’s how we manage change that matters.”
Simon Bentall has 21 years in hotel and catering trades, and owns a shop on Queen Street. Transportation is important, he said, for all ages, and should connect all five communities — it’s been tried before but without a good plan. It will help to alleviate parking problems, “and it will help people like you and me,” he said
Norm Arsenault, retired from the post office, said while knocking on doors in St. Davids he learned traffic is a big issue, with Formula 1 wannabes racing through the village, and that needs to be fixed. Grinder pumps are another issue that needs resolution, and the village needs a new pool, with input from residents and funding from upper levels of government. The village also needs bike paths and sidewalks, he added.
Allan Bisback ran an active B&B in town, which he has recently sold. It’s critical, everyone agrees, he said, that the Town have an updated Official Plan. “We need to bring St. Davids out of the shadows,” he said. “You’ve been paying your taxes.” The village needs a meeting place and a new pool, upgraded sidewalks, and protection of the golf course lands, as well as regulation of cannabis facilities. He would also work to see the village defined a community safety zone by the Region.
Clare Cameron has put down roots in NOTL with her family, and is running for council to preserve what makes NOTL unique. She would work for appropriate development in the village, to fix the traffic problem, transportation that connects communities, and better management of recreational facilities. “It’s beyond time to replace the St. Davids Pool,” she said, adding she’d make sure the new park works for people of all ages.
Sandra O’Connor told the villagers she wants to work “for you and with you,” would listen to residents and take their concerns to town council, including supporting traffic calming and traffic control, a secondary plan to control growth and a replacement pool. “I think this Town has failed you,” she said.
Crispin Bottomley has noticed an increase in public engagement, he said, and he decided to run because he wants the best for the town. The Region has not paid attention to the village of St. Davids, and council has also failed in that regard. He has worked at the pool, which had problems 25 years ago, and it needs to be replaced. The village also needs to have safety issues addressed for pedestrians and cyclists, with traffic concerns resolved.
To begin the question period, candidates were asked what they would do to eradicate the problem of phragmites, the invasive species filling ponds and watercourses in St. Davids.
Gary Burroughs, quick to offer an answer, said he’s talked to several ministries about the issue. The problem, he said, is though there are sprays to kill it, farmers are opposed to using sprays. But there is a plan in place which includes spraying the invasive weeds in local watercourses once the water has dried up. He also has a plan to for residents who have the weed on their private property, he said.
Erwin Wiens said the town’s irrigation system is the envy of other farmers in North America,  and is desperately needed. Ditches can’t be sprayed with water in them, he said, and there’s been some effort to trying to cut the weed but that plugs up the culverts.  “We deal with it every day. It’s blocking our water system.” Agricultural is a multi-million dollar industry, he said, and a solution needs to be found.
Dick, also a farmer and chair of the Town’s agricultural committee, said the committee has been working with Niagara Collage to have students use drones to map where phragmites are located, which will help to access federal and provincial funds. In addition to spray programs, they are looking at a piece of equipment that will cut phragmites at the roots. “We are making progress,” he said.
Flynn said it’s an issue that’s been talked about for the last four years ad it’s not just damaging ditches, it’s taking over storm water retention ponds. He attended this year’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario, where the problem was discussed, and “it’s not an easy fix. As tall as phragmites is, that’s how deep the roots are,” he said. There are experts working on it, he said.
“It’s a major problem throughout Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said John Wiens. “With new equipment and spraying in the fall, we’re hoping to eradicate phragmites in the next couple of years.”
Clare Cameron said it’s an issue on private property as well as public, particularly in St. Davids. She has heard from residents who have tried to get answers from the Town that their calls have been unanswered. As a councillor she would not accept that, she said, and when residents have a problem on their doorstep, the town staff should be as responsive as possible and residents be invited to attend any meetings to discuss solutions.
Wendy Cheropita jumped at a chance to answer a question about how councillors could involve the community in solving major issues, saying she would invite residents with certain skill sets to help address issues as they come up. She proposed a talent bank to invite residents to be a part of every Town project.
Crispin Bottomley said the Town needs council and staff to be receptive to public meetings, to ensure voices are heard and brought forward. “I’ll listen to you and make sure your voice is heard.”
There are lots of talented people in town, said Koroneos — planners, engineers, “chomping at the bit to get involved.” These are the people who should be appointed to Town committees, rather than going by the current attitude of “I know this guy, he’s a good guy. We need to get the best people for the job.”  Also as a quick and cheap fix, he would like to see livestreaming of council meetings improved.
Bisback suggested the Town needs to reach out to residents with certain skill sets who would like to be involved in issues such as finance and budget. The Town also needs help to ensure Town staff is competent and to facilitate open houses and meetings for the public, he said.  
When Miele was elected in 2014, he said, he set up meetings in the council chamber, and every other week for about six months he was there to listen to residents who dropped by to talk to him but “there wasn’t enough traction” to continue. With a new council, he might try again. But the first priority should be setting a budget, working with a $120,000 deficit, and he’d like to see more residents involved in budget discussions.
The Town’s website needs to be redone, said Arsenault, to make it more user-friendly. There is such a “massive talent bank” in town, and before staff hire consultants, they should see if they can get local people involved. He said he’s talked to people who are willing to step up, and it would cost the Town nothing. “We need to go down that road.”
Candidates were also asked about an appropriate level of intensification for St. Davids. Niven, one of the candidates who lives in St. Davids, said it’s an issue that has to be approached with caution. “We know how we feel about the high density development down the road.” That’s something to be avoided in the future, he said, through the Official Plan.
Mazza reminded residents of another development in St. Davids where the developer had actually asked for larger lots and larger houses. The town planning staff recommended higher density, but council supported the developer. “Now there are beautiful homes on beautiful large lots,” he said. “It can be done.” In Queenston, residents fought for single family homes over town homes, and again council agreed. “Council supported them then and will do it again,” he said.
The right density for st. Davids is the density that residents want it to be, said Flynn. The new Official Plan and a community planning permit system, which would address St. Davids as a village, would involve community consultation on intensification, he said.
O’Connor told the audience St. Davids has already met its density requirements according to provincial regulations, so developers can’t use legislation as a rationale for increased density. The community needs a secondary plan, she said, through consultation with residents, with density included, and specific details about house and lot sizes.
Koroneos said the urban boundaries must not be expanded, and the Region and Province need to be pushed to open a gateway above the escarpment rather than paving over prime agricultural land, otherwise “it’s going to be a disaster in the future, and what are we going to say to our kids?” 
While some residents want only low-density housing, there are locals who want some medium or high-density units so they can retire in St. Davids, said Flynn. Contextual zoning would control density, he said, adding the village’s strong residents association should be helping to plan the community.
“We don’t want another Milton or Mississauga,” said Bentall, adding no greenbelt land should be developed. There should be secondary plans for each of the five NOTL communities, and developers need to have a “map” to tell them what they need to know. “We don’t want houses that don’t fit in. We’re a village, not a city.” 
Asked what candidates would do to make sure parks and greenspace are protected, Peters said a lot of the property in the village is already protected by the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the urban boundaries are already set. The golf courses could be sold and would make great parks, he said, and any greenspaces and parks in the village should be protected. 
McCormack said there is a provincial plan to update a natural heritage system, linking natural heritage features together. That would protect those features, and prohibit development adjacent to them. The Region is in the process of updating the natural heritage system, he added.
Bentall would like to see Parks Canada property used as a park, and the federal agency has asked residents for ideas. It could be an area that would be used for educating kids, and it would be a good idea to have St. Davids residents involved in the planning of parks, he said.
Wiens said he thought council should work with all agencies, including the Niagara Escarpment Commission. There is lots of room for public greenspace, he said, “but it has to be communicated.” Communication hasn’t always been the best, he said, “but we all want the same thing.”
When candidates were asked what could be done about saving trees from being taken down during development construction, specifically on Conc.3, Williams said changes are going to happen, but protections could be built into a secondary plan so developers understand they have to do things the way residents want, and not the way they want. The secondary plan, he said, would protect trees and the historic nature of the village.
O’Connor said the Town needs an urban tree bylaw, and was working on one for three and a half year, but the one presented to council “needed some work.” She’d like to see a tree bylaw that minimizes the impact on residents, she said. Without one, by the time a development gets to the site plan stage, it’s too late, the trees are gone. “This is why we need a tree bylaw.”
An urban tree bylaw, said Davis, is very important and council needs to get it done. It’s also important, he said, to change the process so that a site plan comes to council during the planning stage, and an urban tree bylaw should make developers work around trees, not allow them to work “from a blank slate.”
Mazza said the tree bylaw that came to council at the end of their term, having been four years in the works, was not one he could support. It didn’t address development, he said. He referred to a developer in Virgil who took out an urban forest, and that’s the type of situation the bylaw needs to prevent. “It took four years, and we did not get it right.”
Peters said he loves trees, and as the developer of the Conc. 3 property, his plan is to save as many trees as possible. Some will have to come down, mostly diseased ash, and a few pines, but that most will stay. 
Asked what a planned Starbucks will add to Virgil, and what that does to help the historic village, Flynn referred to the discussion about McDonald’s. Council couldn’t say no when the property was already zoned for a restaurant, but could negotiate on some of the design details. “Where do we put a stop to it, when do we say enough is enough? But we can’t discriminate between a Starbucks and a Mom and Pop coffee shop.”
Miele agreed the problem is that when property is already zoned for a certain type of development, the Town can’t discriminate and the project doesn’t need to go to council for approval. Plans do go to an urban design committee, to determine if the project design meets the needs of the community, he said.
John Wiens said the Starbucks project didn’t come to council. “If it’s zoned properly, they can move in.” In January, when the new council plans for the next four years, council has to talk to planning staff about what kinds of projects are needed in the community. 
What does the new development do for the betterment of Virgil? Zero is what it will do for Virgil, said Mazza. “I live there, I work there and I see it every day.” There’s been an increase in traffic, pedestrians, scooters and bicycles, and the Town is not getting co-operation from the Region or the police, he said. Traffic is bad in St. Davids, and it’s worse in Virgil, but St. Davids is in the forefront now and still has an opportunity, with a strong council, to find solutions before it becomes as bad as Virgil.
Cheropita said council and residents should be looking at a long-term vision for St. Davids and building a plan to get there. From a commercial perspective big box stores and big chains don’t fit, she said — but most wine-growing regions around the world attract artisanal and specialty shops. 
NOTL needs adequate economic development services in town, said Cameron. Large corporations like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons use data collection to locate where they know customers are. To balance that, she said, she wants to see the moms and pops suceed as well, with small businesses have access to great data and the Town doing more to support them. 
Although all candidates had said they would support a new pool, one resident questioned why the donor plaque from the St. Davids pool has already been removed. Bottomley assured her that the plaque at Memorial Pool is exactly the same, and he assured St. Davids residents the pool would be built and his name would be on the donor plaque. 
Burroughs said most are supportive of a new pool, but some are concerned about the cost. The community has a history of successful fundraising, and to applause from the audience, suggested maybe a St. Davids developer should be asked to pay for it.
Koroneos said he’s committed to a new pool in St. Davids, and he doesn’t understand why it’s an issue, with the population of the village having doubled.
“Let’s get practical,” said Bisback about a new pool, adding residents should have spoken up when the new large development in St. Davids was being planned. “You all need to think about where your tax dollars have gone in the last few years. You need infrastructure, you paid for infrastructure, you deserve infrastructure and a new council will deliver infrastructure.”
“There’s no reason why you can’t have a new pool,” said Williams. There is no need for more consultants, and there are experienced fundraisers in town to raise the money to help pay for it. “Let’s get it done in a timely fashion.”
Asked how the village will get a secondary plan in place, Kurtz-Just said the Town needs a strong council and a strategic plan which includes the timeline for a secondary plan and the OP to be completed. In the last term of council, staff primarily was directing the strategic plan, because council ceded authority to those who took it, the staff. “That should not have been.” Strategic planning should be developed according to the priorities of residents and council, and then undertaken by town staff, she added.
Cheropita, a strategic planner, said a strategic plan is the roadmap of what council will do for residents, and residents should hold council accountable. The plan has to be clear, and has to include measurements, dates, and timelines. “You should hold the new council accountable to make that happen.”
The residents should be involved in developing a secondary plan, said Niven. Residents live the “real issues” every day, he said, and that is something to take advantage of.
McCormack said what the town needs is not so much a strategic plan but strategic doers, councillors who will implement the community planning permit system and get the Official Plan updated — it hasn’t been done since 1993, and “frankly it’s embarrassing.” Without that the ad hoc, unwanted development will continue, he said.
If elected, Mazza said, at the first opportunity during the first meeting of the new council, he would put a motion on the floor that staff initiate a secondary plan for St. Davids.
The final question of the evening was asked by the a member of the volunteer fire department: What would councillors do about rentals, both student and short-term tourist accommodations, which are becoming more of a problem in St. Davids. Since it was a question many wanted to answer, Mazza asked the moderator if each candidate could be given an opportunity to respond. With a show of hands in support, the moderator agreed each candidate could have 30 seconds to give their view.
Cameron said it’s also becoming a problem in Virgil and in every community. The current bylaw needs updating, but the Town also needs an effective tourism vision, and a much more nuanced approach to tourism that is balanced with what is best for residents. 
O’Connor said it’s an issue that needs to be considered in every community, both short-term for tourists and for long-term for students, and the Town needs to ensure there is sufficient enforcement.
Bottomley said enforcement is necessary for noise, occupancy and safety of community, on a 24-hour basis, and the Town needs to ensure the number of bedrooms is controlled, and that the numbers of rentals fit in with the neighbourhood.
The Town needs a few more bylaw officers, said John Wiens, the number of rentals in communities needs to be limited, and they must be licensed and inspected for fire and safety.
Bisback said he supports licences for all rentals, and bylaw enforcement available 24 hours a day, especially on weekends. 
Arsenault said he is opposed to any short-term rentals that are not owner-occupied, particularly in residential neighbourhoods, otherwise “it’s party hearty” all weekend. 
Bentall said the NOTL B&B Association has a list of 150 rental homes that are not licensed, and there are probably more than that. “It’s ripping apart our community,” he said, and Town bylaw officers need to be on duty over the weekend.
Burroughs agreed with the need for more bylaw officers, and a bylaw that licenses Airbnbs. “The enforcement has to be tough. They have to lose their licences. There must be penalties.”
To applause from the audience, Williams suggested Airbnb customers should pay a tax that would finance bylaw supervision.
Other municipalities have bylaws with guidelines that control many details, said McCormack, and stiff fines of up to $50,000 for those who don’t abide by the rules. “That’s going to be a very effective tool. Yes, you need enforcement, but without bylaws, there’s nothing to enforce.”
NOTL, said Mazza, “is one catastrophe away from ruining the goose that laid the golden egg, the NOTL brand.” If there is one bad incident, “we’re going to be in trouble.” A strong council needs to tell staff “this needs to happen. No more delays, no more consultants. Just get it done.”
Davis says the issue has to be looked at from two perspectives, bylaw and enforcement. Staff should be checking websites for those accommodation rentals operating without licences, and there should be steeper penalties in place to make them think twice about operating illegally in NOTL.
Erwin Wiens said his background as a police officer tells him a “bunch of drunken louts won’t listen to a bylaw officer.” The Town is already paying $11 million for police services, he said. The solution isn’t burdening tax payers to pay for more bylaw officers, it’s a police matter and it needs to be taken care of by the police.
Peters suggested fining the guests. He’s been a landlord for more than 30 years, and when he’s called the police, they do nothing. There are credit card numbers on file, and if customers or tenants break the rules, they are fined. “A lot of the problems are the tenants, not the owners.” He would also look at limiting the number of accommodation rentals.
Cheropita said Airbnbs and short-term rentals should be licensed and regulated with enforcement by bylaw officers, who could be on call, with back-up from police. Owners should be available to handle complaints, she said, and rentals with foreign ownership could be charged an extra tax.
Kurtz-Just said in areas that have solved the problem, the significant issue is that there should be a host or owner in every rental establishment, and that would increase the opportunity for long-term rentals for students as well.
Reid said the issue has been discussed by the safety committee, with members of the Glendale task force and bylaw officers, and it has tried to come up with recommendations for council to help solve the problems, however it’s difficult for bylaw officers to work weekends and it would be difficult for them to be on call as well.
Short-term rentals have to be licensed, said Dick, and the licences should cover the cost of bylaw officers. Short-term rentals make more than B&Bs and should pay more taxes to cover expenses of bylaw enforcement, he said.
Niven said the Glendale area has problems with student rentals, whereas other areas the issue is more about short-term and B&Bs. It comes down to enforcement, he said, with the ones who are not obeying regulations putting a black mark on their neighourhoods. The Town should have a look at enhancing bylaw enforcement, he suggested.
Flynn said the Glendale task force has recommended a licensing bylaw, and B&B regulations have to be looked at again. Absentee landlords are a huge issue, and if the owner’s phone number was posted in every accommodation rental in town, there would be fewer problems, he said.
Miele said he’s been trying to get a bylaw passed to control student rental in Glendale since 2015, and in 2018 there has still been no direction to staff. It’s incumbent on council to ensure student safety, he said, and to put an interim stop on short-term rentals for  a year until there are some solutions in place.
Koroneos said he’s heard from residents that too many rentals are ruining the “community feeling,” and there should be a restriction on numbers. “If we’re supposed to be a village or small community, we need to start restricting the numbers that are allowed.”

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