Special to The Lake Report
Term rentals are governed by the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s short-term rentals bylaw. B&Bs have required licences in NOTL for decades, however, it wasn’t until 2013 that a bylaw was introduced that covered the entire rental spectrum, including B&Bs, cottage rentals, villas, country inns and vacation apartments.
The bylaw lays out a great many requirements that short-term rentals must comply with in order to obtain a licence, including fire safety, building code compliance, property maintenance, liability insurance, parking spaces, signage and much more. It also covers how the rules will be enforced and specifies penalties for non-compliance. It is quite thorough.
Bylaw enforcement, however, has been a challenge. Noise violations in particular have been difficult to deal with as bylaw enforcement officers are typically off-duty when the noise infractions occur.
People calling the town with noise complaints would quickly become frustrated with the lack of action and vent their anger at the entire short-term rental community even though the actual number of offenders was small. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are a significant number of unlicensed short-term rentals in NOTL that are, in effect, underground.
The town has taken a number of actions, including making revisions to the bylaw and hiring Granicus Host Compliance to assist with enforcement (the cost of which is recouped from rental licences, not municipal taxes).
Last fall several proposed revisions to the bylaw came before council and largely focused on curbing “bad behaviour” from guests. The changes included many terms that would have been very punitive for rental owners, including the requirement that only a “principal residence” could be licensed as a short-term rental. This would have virtually eliminated the entire cottage rental segment (or at least the licensed portion of that segment), as such properties are generally vacation homes, not principal residences.
These proposals caused great dismay among rental owners, who felt they were unnecessarily severe for the goal they were trying to achieve. At the suggestion of the B&B Association, council created a temporary short-term rentals committee, including councillors, tourism industry representatives and NOTL citizens.
The committee was to investigate the issues, thoroughly and objectively, and propose solutions to council that would serve the needs of all. After several months of weekly meetings, the committee reported to council in August. It contained detailed recommendations on how to address the areas of concern while respecting the rights of all parties.
The recommendations have been turned over to town staff and a revised bylaw is to be presented to Council before the end of the year. The committee is on hold for now, having fulfilled its purpose, pending processing of its recommendations.
As well, the town has expanded enforcement, hiring Granicus Host Compliance. It is early days, but it looks like progress is being made. I believe that last month 12 properties were fined for operating without a licence. Granicus will also be active in triggering the local rental contacts to address noise and other complaints.
The B&B Association believes the revisions proposed by the short-term rentals committee on behalf of the community will lead to a more fair, easier-to-enforce and effective bylaw. We also believe the committee itself provides a model for addressing future tourism-related issues. The overall positive experience of the committee has shown that bringing together knowledgeable, committed and results-driven members of our community for objective and focused discussions ensures good decision-making and win-win outcomes.
We may not have to wait long for an opportunity to test this proposition. Council has voted to implement a municipal accommodation tax in NOTL. There are some very vocal individuals in town who support this direction but many in the tourism industry are concerned about the potential impact.
The B&B Association believes the best option is to again officially involve members of council, the tourism industry and the community in the process, as was done with the rental bylaw. This should ensure that decisions are made in a spirit of collaboration and respect, with the best interests of NOTL’s future in mind. The association would welcome the opportunity to participate in such an activity.
The governance of rentals in NOTL has evolved as our community has evolved, although often lagging a little behind. The B&B Association believes that the best results are achieved when key representatives from all parties are involved in the process, as was demonstrated in the case of the short-term rentals committee.
John Foreman is president of the NOTL B&B Association.