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COVID compounds challenges with STA licencing program and bylaws

By Sharon Harrison
The COVID-19 pandemic has further hampered an already messy process to wrangle the new short-term accommodations program, licencing and bylaws.

“It’s challenging in a regular year: those challenges were compounded for us in Prince Edward County in 2020 with the pandemic and a series of stay-at-home orders and the inability to enter properties to do inspections,” Todd Davis told council during a special meeting on the program’s review this week.

The Director of Community Services, Programs and Initiatives provided an overview of a staff report undertaken last September when council paused all STA applications seeking a full program review due to the effects of the pandemic, and the continuing crisis of attainable housing in the County. The new STA bylaw had into effect in June.

Though he noted other jurisdictions are reporting similarly, he suggests progress is being made.

“True enforcement takes some time before you have to get everybody licensed, and then you start to do the enforcement piece and that can take upwards of 24-36 months before that actually comes on-line,” said Davis.

He also said the municipality is in a good position in terms of the program paying for itself, accepting applications and going through inspections.

The report states 1,033 applications were received from June 25 to Dec. 1, 2020; 797 were considered completed, 236 were incomplete. There have been 516 inspections completed and 281 outstanding inspections – some pending STA owner payment of licencing fees.

“A number of grandfathered STAs were given temporary provisional licences so that they could operate in 2020; some of them haven’t been inspected and are represented as the 281 incomplete inspections, but a number of those are grandfathered STAs that have temporary provisional licensing,” Davis explained.

In the program review, staff identified four significant areas meriting further investigation, including a larger land use planning policy, the program’s operational challenges, general program improvements and changes to the STA related bylaws.

Changes to the program’s database, he said, have helped differentiate between the different types of STAs and their locations generally in the community, which will improve future reporting.

He also noted need to better communicate responsibilities and requirements for burn permits, and since false fire alarms for service had been an issue, the fire department now has a fine in place related to false calls.

“However, one of the issues that has come up is that false security alarms are a problem brought to us by the Ontario Provincial Police. The chief building official and the OPP are working on a report that would bring a bylaw relating to false security alarm calls and fines in place in order to manage that issue.”

Council agreed with staff’s recommendation to investigate improvement of licencing enforcement, engaging in platforms and review of zoning bylaws – all to be brought forward to a future planning committee meeting.

Information was gathered through stakeholder surveys, local STA businesses, and public comments that garnered more than 1,400 responses, as well as agency and staff interviews and meetings.

Councillors noted they want more details on their original request to understand the effect STAs and licencing are having on communities throughout the County.

Councillor Kate MacNaughton stated she was seeking information on the impact STAs were having, and whole-home STAs specifically, on the housing market and options for ending grandfathering between ownership.

“It is our duty that if we can preserve residential housing stock, this should be one of our top concerns,” she said, suggesting consultation with legal counsel.”

“I believe a full cap on the program for whole-home STAs or any STA subject to density requirement potentially would help us find some opportunities to preserve housing stock.”

Councillor Jamie Forrester said just over 1,000 people registered doesn’t relfect the number of operating STAs which would potentially be double that figure.

Councillor John Hirsch stated he was “shocked in reading this report and learned that our conclusion is that possibility half of the STAs in the County are operating illegally.”

Forrester’s concern that mobile homes were not being registered was answered with the fact that they are not licensable because they are not considered dwelling units as per the Ontario Building Code.

Davis noted staff is in conversation with various online booking platforms to encourage the inclusion of a mandatory field for licence numbers. He also noted they were looking at whether the collection of MAT tax dollars on behalf of STA businesses could be done through organizations like Airbnb.

“Our goal is to try and encourage those organizations only to list licenced STAs in our community,” he said. “We have been pushing pretty hard to those organizations to encourage them or to see if we can engage with them to collect MAT tax on our behalf and currently their position is solidly a ‘no’.”

Councillor Bill Roberts expressed concern with grandfathering of properties that are sold with “a premium value” in the real estate market, “so it becomes a reinforcement frustration of affordable or attainable housing.”

Councillor Ernie Margetson said limiting whole home STAs is something that should be explored further.

Councillor Phil St.-Jean added he would like to see zero STAs in rental apartments.

“Our rental stock is not meant for STAs, it’s meant to support affordable housing.”

Davis noted the process of initial licensing the STAs in Prince Edward County is not complete for various reasons and was therefore difficult to use some of the tools that would be available for control.

Chief Building Official Andy Harrison explained the grandfathering process.

“If you had a whole home rental prior to 2018, as long as it stayed a whole home rental, that under the zoning bylaw constituted the legal conforming continuous use, and I think the bylaw also says that you have that use; grandfathered for 24 months. After, its ceases to exist.”

He says the licence expires with the change of ownership for the owner, but the use for the property stays in place for the following owners if they wanted to get a licence because the use stays with the property, not the licence.

Mayor Steve Ferguson agreed there is a need for more data and more research into the effect of STAs on the municipality.

“The situation is not going to diminish,” he said. “We have to get this data as soon as possible so we can institute changes. At some point, we are going to have to decide how much is enough, and balance the number of STA units with the needs of the community and housing in our community, and whole homes are a real concern.”

A report, updates and amended bylaws will come to a future meeting.

Davis said staff have asked to bring a report to council for the potential of a study of the effects of STAs and STA licencing in the community to be completed by the end of the year.

“This would include recommendations and opportunities to engage with similar communities, academic partners, partners and third party consultants and would be contingent on our ability to secure funding available to support the cause of doing this type of a study.”

“We feel like that would give us a better sense as to what the true impact of STAs is.”

He said while they have a sense to what the impact of STAs are, they don’t have any documentation.

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  1. angela says:

    It is very sad to see entire neighbourhoods turned into accommodations for our summer guests. Tourism is not the salvation of Prince Edward County but rather, at its present level, its ruination. The STAs and B and B’s line the pockets of their owners but do nothing to benefit the rest of us.

  2. Dan says:

    There are a shocking number of full air BnBs in the county these days.

    I hope someone is looking out for us.

  3. Janice says:

    “An acute shortage of accommodation for visitors to PE”—isn’t that a shame. There is an acute shortage of accommodation for local folk due to this ridiculous tourism agenda or tourism hysteria. Most of us are sick and tired of catering to this sector in our County. It’s long overdue to shift the focus on the needs of the local population.

  4. Mark says:

    To say that tourism is important to the County is also a generalization. Perhaps it is, perhaps not. I have seen no data that would support that claim and show us that the monetary gain outweighs the costs placed upon the municipality who is the taxpayer. Facts are what we need, just the facts.

  5. MI says:

    There are so many generalizations and unsubstantiated statements about STAs, I am sure that it is frustrating for everyone. What we know is that tourism is important to the County. We know that there is an acute shortage of accommodation for visitors to PE. Attacking or handcuffing the STAs pretty much undermines all the efforts of the Economic Development and Tourism staff. If we continue this hysteria, we might as well cut the numerous related staff and save a lot of money for the already overtaxed residents of PEC.

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