Encouraging financial numbers a welcome positive
Pelham Town Council’s bizarre odyssey with the proposed Park Place South townhouse development nearly came to a merciful end at the May 17 virtual meeting, with members finally approving the plan after three tries—though a final, confirming vote is due at their next meeting.
The trouble began at council’s March 22 virtual gathering, when political allies Lisa Haun, Ron Kore, Bob Hildebrandt, and Marianne Stewart took the unusual step of balking at Mountainview Homes’ design plans for blocks of back-to-back townhouses in East Fonthill.
“The public had no objection to the original plan, there were no comments at all,” Ward 2 Councillor John Wink said last Monday. “I firmly believe it’s not up to councillors to base their decisions on personal biases regarding such things as building design, outdoor space, et cetera.”
The developer returned revised drawings to the Town during the week of May 10, and it appears that a fractional increase in the buildings’ setback—approximately the width of a sidewalk— was justification enough for the bloc of aligned councillors to change their tune.
However, in an exercise in semantics that took up the better part of an hour, Hildebrandt and Haun dissected the difference between Mountainview’s and the Town’s setback figures.
“I can’t reconcile these reports,” Hildebrandt said. “I’ll approve Mountainview standards but I won’t approve the Town of Pelham’s Planning Department standards.”
Director of Community Planning and Development Barb Wiens said that because Mountainview’s new plans were 11.7 metres, it was a moot point. However, she did concede that an amendment could be made to establish the minimum at 7.5 metres— and that because Mountainview’s new drawings weren’t building-permit-ready, changes could happen.
Haun then moved a motion to establish this figure, and the measure finally passed. In doing so, councillors abandoned their objections to limiting the townhouse design to four units per block, approving the original eight.
During the first debate over the matter on March 22, Haun and others objected to the layout, citing the fact that the middle six of such units would lack yard space as a result of their back-to-back construction. When it was pointed out that the design was related to the project’s lower price point, several councillors were publicly criticized.
Haun specifically took aim at the Voice, accusing the newspaper of painting her as anti-affordable housing. The councillor took another swing at the paper last Monday, claiming that the developer had provided her with new materials—something she asserted didn’t happen at the beginning.
“I just want to take the opportunity for those who are viewing, and also the local tabloids that can capture that [Mountainview Homes] supplied us with new drawings as of … Thursday or Friday,” Haun said. “I think that’s important information if that wasn’t already captured.”
Ward 1 Councillor Wayne Olson, however, told the Voice several weeks ago that council had been provided with adequate information from the start, and that, “I knew what I was voting for” from the beginning, on March 22.
Planning Director Barb Wiens confirmed to the Voice that over the intervening weeks, despite the council drama, nothing about the design had been changed by the developer.
“In the end, the Park Place South draft plan of subdivision was not modified...[the] change to the front yard setback in the proposed zoning bylaw amendment will not result in any change to the developer’s design of the back-to-back townhouses or a change to the draft plan of subdivision.”
According to a Town staff report, had council not approved the plan, Pelham would have been on the hook for approximately $40,000 in legal fees from what would almost certainly have been a Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) challenge by Mountainview.
One obstruction falls, another arises
While that odd chapter closed, council erected a new set of unexpected roadblocks when five of seven members voted to defer allowing the City of St. Catharines to spend $250,000 of their own money inside Pelham borders on Twelve Mile Creek remediation measures. While Mayor Marvin Junkin attempted to explain that the plan involved no commitment from Pelham whatsoever, except a technically required granting of permission to St. Kitts, the political faction of Hildebrandt, Haun, Kore and Stewart —joined by Ward 2 Councillor John Wink—balked.
“[The Town of Pelham has] nothing to do with this project,” the Mayor opened by saying. “St. Catharines has got to have our permission. That’s all they’re asking for from us.”
Hildebrandt immediately took issue with a supposed lack of oversight from Pelham, even though none is required, nor likely legally permissible.
“My question becomes this,” Hildebrandt said, misstating the facts, “why would I allow another municipality to carry out a project where I give up all my rights as a community, no inspection, no oversight, no transparency, and yet I have to answer to the residents?”
While St. Catharines would fund the project, the City would not “carry it out.”
CAO David Cribbs tried to explain that such projects aren’t uncommon, and that ultimately the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA)— as well as the Province and even the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans —would have say in the matter, given the work is set to improve the creek’s flow across private property (not Town land) into Lake Ontario, in St. Catharines.
“Whatever work they do, there will be government approval, we’re just not that government,” Cribbs said. “And while citizens may have questions for you, you’re not supposed to have answers because this is not a Town project. This is sort of like asking what’s the strategic plan for the Legion, or Beamer’s Hardware...proud members of this community, but none of our business how they’re going to go forward into the future.”
The CAO stressed that the land where the work is set to take place—to be undertaken in conjunction with the conservancy group Trout Unlimited, as reported in last week’s issue—is private property, not Town of Pelham property.
Hildebrandt remained unmoved.
“I know we don’t own it, but it’s within the municipality of Pelham,” he rebutted. “So therefore, we’re responsible in my view.”
Wink then looped in Town Solicitor Jennifer Stirton, asking her if Pelham could be on the hook for any legal issues after the fact.
“I can’t see any basis for a claim against the Town,” Stirton replied.
While any public meetings relating to project would be handled by the upper levels of government, Councillor Stewart wanted to ensure that Pelham be copied on any correspondence regarding the project. Cribbs appeared frustrated, saying he presumed the authorization would be a technicality.
“We don’t have some greater understanding or moral authority than any other branch of government,” Cribbs said. “And in the normal course, this would be a vote [in which council said] ‘Yes, of course, you can donate money to an environmental organization here in Pelham.’”
Despite warnings that St. Catharines and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans require agreements in place before the preservation work could commence, Hildebrandt hinted at something untoward.
“This seems like a last-minute effort to push this through council without proper disclosure,” the Ward 3 councillor said.
Councillor Wink asked that a more detailed staff report on the proposal be made available at the next council meeting. Only Junkin and Ward 1 Councillor Wayne Olson voted against deferring the matter. [See related story.]
Council received an update on secondary dwelling units (SDUs), another contentious topic relating to housing affordability which has seen past pushback from some councillors. A Town survey yielded around 20 comments from residents — the majority from Fenwick — mostly regarding the sizes and types of units which would ultimately be permitted. Because property lots tend to be larger in the rural or agricultural zones of Pelham, many questions centred on how that would work. Planning Director Barb Wiens said that applications would be reviewed case-by-case, but stressed that any SDU was to be “subordinate” in size to the existing dwelling.
“It’s not to have two principal dwellings on one lot,” she said.
The provincial conservatives have explicitly mandated that secondary (or “granny”) units be made part of municipal Official Plans, an aspect of their “More Homes, More Choices Act” of 2019. Compared to most of Niagara, Pelham is behind on implementing such planning, due in part to what seems to be a deliberate pattern of delays by Town Council.
Councillor Kore asked if property taxes would go up on lots that constructed either secondary structures or in-house additions, to which the CAO answered was likely.
“It’s absolutely foreseeable … because that seems self-evident, you’re adding value to the property,” Cribbs replied.
Financial work lauded
A round of back-patting stemmed from an Audit and Finance Committee Report, with Councillor Wink lauding the work of Treasurer Teresa Quinlin and Deputy Treasurer Charlotte Tunikaitis.
“We’re really pleased with the results,” Wink said. “I look at the expenses of 2020 compared to 2019, and they’re almost identical. So, there’s been a concerted effort on keeping the costs down.”
While the Ward 2 councillor warned that reserves remained short of goals, it was still good news given the cost of COVID-19 — something that also netted the Town a substantial amount of upper-level emergency funding.
“We were able to replenish reserves quite a bit,” Wink said. “We’re still probably about $8 million short of where we should be. But I commend staff … under such a difficult year.”
Kore added his own praise, suggesting that the Town’s finances have a come a long way under the new administration.
“What they brought back to that department was integrity, structure, reporting, and most of all transparency,” Kore said. “It really feels good that we’re not trying to hide anything anymore.”
Fire Chief Bob Lymburner reported that 227,637 doses of vaccine had been dispensed in the Niagara Region as of May 17, representing 44.7 percent of the eligible population. He said approximately 2000 people a day were going through the vaccination site at the MCC, since the community centre’s capacity was expanded. Second shots for frontline workers have been moved up, with Lymburner saying he was expecting his own second dose this week.
“Things are going well,” he said.
Odds and ends
◼︎ Haun announced she was leaving her seat on the Niagara Region Transportation Steering Committee due to timing conflicts, and tabbed political ally Stewart to replace her.
“I’m doing the responsible thing here and passing on this position on this committee, to hopefully, Councillor Stewart if that’s the will of council.”
Council unanimously approved.
◼︎ A Town report on sports video streaming at the MCC was received. Unlike the streaming equipment for seniors’ programs centred in the Accursi Room at the community centre — which cost the Town about $51,000 — staff recommended contracting out sports streaming to private company GameOn Streaming, who can reportedly stream games at the price of $9.99 per month for interested parties.
◼︎ Council also formally approved the hiring of Sarah Leach as Deputy Clerk.
With files by Dave Burket.