Traffic congestion, affordable housing, short-term rentals, heritage protection and tourism management were the hot topics at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored candidates debate last week.
With the rapid long-term expansion of the Glendale neighbourhood, the 13 council candidates and three mayoral candidates discussed the growing concern about providing jobs, houses and roads for the influx of residents.
“Glendale for me is the gateway to Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s our front door,” Tim Balasiuk told the crowd Wednesday night at the Royal George Theatre.
The neighbourhood is projected to be home to 15,000 people and about 7,500 jobs after it is completed in 2041.
That building boom is expected to increase the need for infrastructure development, but Balasiuk is optimistic.
“With the right zoning in place we’re able to do this really, really well.”
As Glendale continues to grow, so do the town’s traffic problems.
John McCallum suggested a park-and-ride program to shuttle people into Old Town could help.
A town study done 12 years ago examined the issue, he said, but noted council did nothing since then to start a shuttle service.
“I am absolutely in favour of a park-and-ride and I will be pressing council if I’m elected to get this up and going,” he added.
Candidates had two minutes apiece for opening statements and another two for questions.
Each person was also allowed to respond one time throughout the question period and was permitted to make a short closing statement. Regional council candidates were not included in the debate.
In response to a question about affordable housing options, Adriana Cater Vizzari said, “I think that we have to look at if the benefit outweighs the cost.”
As well, the town would need to look to the region and province for help with affordable housing, she said.
“I don’t think our town in itself can necessarily support that,” she said.
Wendy Cheropita and Nick Ruller both spoke about how short-term rentals affect the availability of long-term rentals.
Cheropita said she knows of one NOTL renter who has been evicted multiple times by landlords under the pretense of turning the rentals into family homes.
Most of them were turned into short-term rentals, she added.
“There are unintended consequences of not having a good mixture of available rental housing,” Ruller said.
And if the town doesn’t “get a handle” on the available housing and short-term rentals, it will affect the “sustainability of the various industries we’re trying to support here,” he said.
Cheropita pointed out that the current council has worked with a group of bed and breakfast owners and short-term rental operators to pass a bylaw that helps the town go after licence violators.
“When that bylaw is in place, you will find that it’s got some teeth to it,” she said.
Some candidates on the panel felt short-term rentals have been unfairly criticized.
“When it comes to short-term rentals in our town, there’s a huge problem with demonizing the problem rather than trying to seek a viable solution,” Richard Mell said.
He suggested the town might be able to limit the number of short-term rental licences or restrict them by district and neighbourhood.
Mell was not the only one calling for level heads on the issue.
“I actually think that they improve the experience in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Allan Bisback said.
He was concerned that hosted bed and breakfasts, which have not been a problem, might be lumped in with short-term rentals.
With “tight inspections,” Bisback said he was confident the town could stay abreast of the issue.
An August staff report to council shows the town has made progress on policing rentals.
Short-term rentals were part of a larger discussion on the role of tourism in the town.
Most of the candidates who spoke about tourism agreed that it plays an essential role in the community.
Katherine Reid was concerned about the competitiveness of small businesses, especially in the wine-growing community.
“I think sometimes those little guys are sort of left off the map,” she said.
She also suggested that while communication between the tourists and residents can get complicated they are ”usually pretty co-operative.”
Ruller conceded there was tension between residents and the tourism industry as well.
“It’s no secret that throughout the community, we’ve got complaints on a regular basis about special events.”
Gary Burroughs also spoke about special events and the noise they can produce.
“Our noise bylaw currently needs to be updated,” he said.
“We all enjoy going to some of these events, but we have to get a handle on it,” he added.
Erwin Wiens emphasized that “tourism is an asset to the taxpayer” when he was asked if tourism was an asset or a detriment to the town.
“The whole town revolves around tourism and the beauty behind it is based on tourism,” he said.
Protections for heritage buildings was another big issue.
Maria Mavridis was asked if she would support a heritage tax credit for owners of heritage buildings in Old Town.
“There are a lot of buildings on Queen Street that do need a little bit of maintenance. And we would all benefit from it,” she said.
Some of the questions submitted to the candidates were about parking in the heritage district.
Sandra O’Connor, much like McCallum, suggested a hop-on, hop-off system, with parking lots and parkades built outside the heritage district.
She and Lord Mayor Betty Disero both brought up the Hoverlink Ontario plan to run hovercraft daily between Niagara and Toronto.
They were optimistic that the plan will alleviate a lot of the traffic congestion in town.
Balasiuk warned that no one knows “whether or not this Hoverlink is going to happen” and that “it would be really unfortunate” if the town overspent on parking that it didn’t end up needing.
The town’s litigation expenses lit a few sparks when mayoral challenger Vaughn Goettler was asked about the necessity of the expense.
He described winding up in litigation as “a failure of communication.”
“We have to fight for things that we believe in. But we need to make sure that everybody has the rules clear at the beginning,” he said.
Disero rebutted by arguing that most of the litigation expenses have gone to fighting a developer who threatened the Randwood heritage areas.
“It’s not that we can negotiate it,” she said, adding, “We had to defend our town.”
Mayoral candidate Gary Zalepa was not satisfied with Disero’s response.
While he agreed the town has an obligation to protect its heritage, he said it had failed to write those protections into policy.
He described Disero’s comment as “a line.”
“I really think that the town has abdicated the responsibility to set really clear growth policies,” he said.
Alistair Harlond was asked how he would handle the commercial and residential taxes for the town if elected.
“I probably don’t have all the information to give you a credible answer,” he said but stressed the need for council members to work collaboratively on the issue.
McCallum took the question as an opportunity to bring up the amount of taxes residents pay to the region.
NOTL residents are the “third-largest payer of taxes to the region. We need to get more services for what we pay,” he said.