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STA board says County no further ahead with new bylaw rules

LETTER:
The Licensed Short-Term Accommodator’s Association of Prince Edward County (www.licensedSTAs.com) is a non-profit association, representing the interests of over 200 short-term rental hosts in the county. We support members in professionally managing all aspects of their rental properties, including understanding and complying with municipal bylaws.

We have been speaking at council sessions for over 18 months, bringing the views of STA owners to the forefront and educating council on operational details we felt they needed to be aware of as the County staff and council went through their process of formulating new STA bylaw rules. We fully support the need for regulations around short-term rentals and we wanted to see the County come forward with a well thought through approach to managing the volume and operations of STAs here in Prince Edward County.

In short, last week’s final vote on the issue left us in shock and shaking our heads with disbelief. After five years of operating the current STA licensing program, two years of council deliberations on the topic, and hundreds of thousands of tax-payer dollars spent in outside studies, legal consultations and staff and Council’s time, we feel the County is really no further ahead on the goal of governing short-term rental activity, as council voted to accept a new bylaw with major policy and enforcement gaps.

At the Sept. 20th council meeting, council voted to move forward with open licensing of STAs, as long as the applicant for the licence can prove that the address in question is their primary residence. During the proceedings, a few council members took time to debate what documents one must show to prove primary residence and debated whether an attestation was sufficient, or an official oath was needed, but, they totally disregarded the bigger risks at hand (in spite of our many members writing to council beforehand to put the risks in bold text, under their noses). With such a critical decision at hand, we watched our YouTube screens with mouths agape as councillors openly remarked that “it was late”, “that they’d been at this issue for so many months” and that they “just wanted to move forward”. And, that they did – they rushed a bylaw that has gaping holes!

The result – now, any resident who lives in the County for at least half the year can apply for a Primary Residence STA license and rent out part of their property all year round, as long as they are on-site. In addition, an applicant can also apply for a special license to be off-site for up to 45 days a year and rent their home while they’re away.

In making this decision, how could council not discuss the following critical components in greater detail:
– The fact that STA licenses for primary residences will be completely open to every primary resident. Council just set precedent that takes us back to before any licensing program was in place in the County. It’s pretty much open season on STA licensing again! In spite of our many warnings about setting some form of a cap on the total volume of licences allowed in the County (i.e. keep it under 10 per cent of total dwellings) or a density cap to ensure popular areas aren’t saturated with short-stay tourism, the bylaw was passed last night with no formal caps or density provisions put in writing.

We presented the math, and the argument for setting an overall volume cap, but it was ignored. There are 11,332 dwellings in the County, according to the latest STATS CAN 2021 census, and over 860 existing licensed STAs, according to County records. That means almost 8 per cent of housing is already being used for short-term rentals. With allowing any resident to apply to have their primary home licensed, we could easily see upwards of 20 per cent of housing stock being used for short-term rentals by next summer.

Detailed thought seemed to be at hand during the July and August council meetings, as time was dedicated to debating how to calculate a density ratio, but as council dropped the notion of licensing secondary STAs, they somehow also dropped the ball on setting effective controls on Primary Residence STAs, and even expanded the ability to rent with the open 45 days absence provision. Wasn’t the whole point of the past two year moratorium and review to look at ways to decrease the volume of STAs?

– The impact of a 45-day open rental provision, while a primary resident is absent from the home. Staff’s utopian concept here is that a primary resident will pop into Shire Hall and let staff know they plan to travel and would like to rent their entire home while they’re away. They’ll willingly share exact dates and obtain a special license to be able to rent for up to 45 days on a short-term basis.

The reality we foresee is that hundreds of primary residents will be incentivized to abandon their primary home with an open ticket to rent on a nightly basis for up to 45 days each summer. We already see many local residents with a current whole home STA license, vacate their primary home each July and August, move to a trailer, cottage or travel and lucratively operate their STA.

The bylaw contains no provisions for staff to deny a primary resident a year-round or 45 day license, as long as they meet documentation requirements and fire safety and building code standards. We are now poised to see whole neighbourhoods near beaches and other attractions with absent primary residents renting for 45 days during the high season.

The fact that an STA applicant can be a tenant, not a property owner. Imagine that you are a property owner, renting a townhouse to a local resident who then applies to the County to have an STA licence. Yes, we feel the new bylaw language allows for a license to be granted, without the property owner necessarily being consulted. Another scenario is that one property contains two dwelling units, neither of which is a primary resident for the property owner. In this case, the tenant can apply as the primary resident and the second dwelling unit can become a licensed STA. This essentially has the effect of taking a investment property that was used for long-term housing, off the market, and it being turned into an STA. Our strong view on this was that ONLY property owners should be allowed to make the decision to apply for an STA licence for a property, and, under the new rules, ONLY if that property owner has officially designated that property as their primary residence.

Exorbitant fine amounts and only 72 hours to comply. Mayor Ferguson did attempt to bring some humanity back into the process last night and kicked off discussion about reviewing the August decision to set a $1,000 fine for not posting an STA licence number in a rental advertisement. Everyone seemed to agree that $1,000 was just too steep for what could be an error or unintentional omission on the part of a legitimately licensed operator. As a comparison, we pointed out in our deputation that the provincial fine for a first offence of Impaired Driving is only $250! That said, council was clearly more interested in getting home to bed than in doing the right thing, as council members did not carry the vote to formally review the previous decision and re-open the discussion to set a new amount. Council also continued to ignore the fact that the bylaw language is not aligned with what staff describes the process will be. For example, the bylaw language states that a licensed operator will have 72 hours to “comply” with infractions before they risk having a license revoked. When we cited the example of perhaps needing to erect or even simply correct fence height under the new bylaw, with 72 hours not being nearly enough time to “comply”, there was no discussion. There were so many issues like this where our members wrote and pointed out areas where bylaw language doesn’t seem to match council’s intent, with no council members really digging into the language and a new bylaw that is now open to differing interpretations by bylaw officers, admin staff, fire inspectors, etc.

Here we are, two years later, having collectively learned so much, discussed the STA issue from all angles, and yet, in the end, there was no true listening to stakeholder feedback, and council certainly didn’t dig in and ensure that we put together the best governance framework possible, in the interests of the community at large.

The council meeting format is partly to blame. The meetings are too long and run too late. Procedural changes need to take place so that minor issues aren’t coming to the council table, so that agendas aren’t so packed, and so that our councillors and staff can find more effective ways to dialogue with the community and work together to build sound policy. What we witnessed through this STA bylaw review and revision is certainly not the process we’d like to continue to see for dealing with other critical community issues.

As we head into a municipal election, we really want to encourage voters to get out there and vote for councillors who will dig into documentation, pay attention to the details, seek out feedback and alternative perspectives, and not give up and just rush a bylaw because they’re tired of talking about the issue.

Mike Amos, board member
Licensed Short-Term Accommodators of Prince Edward County

Click here to see the revised STA program

 

Filed Under: Letters and OpinionNews from Everywhere Else

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  1. Argyle says:

    There are many people living here in the County that feel there are too many STAs and it seems their concern is shared by council and hopefully the Ontario government will allow municipalities to apply business tax to all licensed STAs in the future.

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