Southgate is equipping itself to deal with vacant buildings, passing a bylaw for them to be registered, inspected and made safe.

 The new bylaw comes equipped with fines for those who don’t comply, and it also applies to buildings which are only partly empty.

 Exempt are seasonal homes, township buildings and units on farms that aren’t lived in by people.

 Such a bylaw aims at buildings being kept secure and safe, and – judging from comments by councillors – less unsightly. 

 “They are an eyesore,” said Coun. Martin Shipston, of the empty stores or buildings mixed in among nicely renovated and new ones on downtown streets.  Councillor Joan John said that the pressure could see landlords either lower rents to get tenants into their spaces or “become more creative and offer different alternatives to use the empty spaces: pop-up shops, artist galleries, rotating food incubators.”

 Owners must register vacant and partly vacant buildings with a fee of $300 and renew that yearly at $600. Buildings are taken off the list by the department when no longer “vacant” under the bylaw definition.

 Fines can range up to a maximum of $10,000 on first offence and $25,000 on second and following for a person, and are considerably higher for a corporation.

 Council looked at the idea of a vacancy bylaw in December, 2022, and asked staff to draft one.

 On Wednesday, Aug. 2, Clerk Lindsay Green, presenting her report, said that many other such bylaws were consulted, and were adapted to suit this municipality.

 Regular checks include that the property meets building and fire code and the property standards bylaw, and that the fire department has a floor plan and list of potential hazards, if any.

 If the township bylaw officer thinks there is a public risk, they can order work done to make it safe.

 COSTS & BENEFITS

 Councillor Jason Rice asked about enforcement and costs. 

 It’s true there is only one dedicated bylaw enforcement officer, replied Clerk Lindsay Green, but staff “don’t want to come in too strong”, anyway. Also, there are other places in the township than Dundalk. Working with building owners would be the first step, and any bylaw enforcement will follow a process.

 Costs for needed work, along with any outstanding fines can be placed on the tax bill, council heard, with interest to be charged from the date of the work.

 CAO Dina Lundy assured council that a court process was not needed to put the costs onto the tax bills.

 She said the bylaw had been thoroughly reviewed by the fire department, building and bylaw and public works – “just to make sure of what we’re putting forward.”

 Council and staff have been hoping for years that owners of vacant buildings or buildings with empty storefronts could be motivated to move to get the occupied.

 Among the public, there are periodic online discussions about the state of the downtown – primarily the empty stores. When this topic leads to store rental prices there are those who say that mortgages are high and so rents have to support that, and others who say the high rents asked end up meaning stores bring in no income. In many cases, owners still realize money from apartments. 

 The state of downtown Dundalk was also raised in all-candidates meetings during the last election.

 Mayor Brian Milne welcomed the proposed bylaw. “This issue has been ongoing for years.”

 Councillor Monica Singh Soares agreed, calling it a positive step in the right direction.

 The township can order needed work done in a given timeline, by contacting the owner or person responsible, or if that fails by putting a sign on the property.

 If it’s not done, the township can do work that officials say is needed and add it to taxes.

 The bylaw also allows the officers to enter and inspect the building during business hours.

 A positive measure already in place to help with downtown improvement is the Community Improvement Plan. It gives some matching grants for projects that qualify.

 Councillor John observed that some business “are trying their best to renovate and beautify their units” while others let them become eyesores.

 It was only a few years ago, Deputy Mayor Barbara Dobreen reflected, that the township and county stopped giving a tax break for vacant buildings. She sees this bylaw as moving further toward getting action on revitalizing the downtown.

 At the same time, it’s acknowledged that some absentee owners are investors who are waiting for the value of their building – or even of the land alone – to increase.

 She hoped that the new strategy would be a strong enough deterrent to lead to improvements.

 The problem is not one that’s confined to Dundalk, but instead is true in many places, small and large. 

 Vacancy bylaws have been adopted in the last couple years in many Ontario municipalities to address associated issues of building neglect and hazard, potential pests, and other impacts.

 A number of these were just passed in 2022, so it will take some time to see what the most successful approaches are.

 BYLAW PARTICULARS

-buildings must be registered if empty more than 60 days

-at 90 days, any utilities not needed for safety must be terminated

-building owners are required to keep liability insurance on the vacant building

-vacant building means, among other things, any building that is or appears to be vacant, partially vacant or unoccupied.

-registrations that are incomplete, false or misleading will be refused

-if bylaw personnel believe there’s a risk to safety, they can require to have an engineer inspect or take measures that satisfy the Fire Chief.

By M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 19, 2023 at 10:35

This item reprinted with permission from   Dundalk Herald & The Advance   Dundalk, Southgate, Grey Highlands, Ontario

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