Saturday, May 21, 2022

Council Makes Some Sensible Amendments to New Burn Bylaw

Before a final vote on the municipality’s new burn bylaw on Monday, members of council engaged in a lengthy, but productive conversation focused on some amendments being sought prior to final approval.

Though council had unanimously approved the new burn bylaw two weeks prior, over that time members of council heard from some ratepayers and they brought the concerns they had encountered to the council horseshoe for discussion.

This is in part why motions and bylaws are subject to two votes at council, generally two weeks apart. The time between those votes provides an opportunity for councillors to engage with ratepayers and gain an understanding of the wishes of the community. This is not uncommon, it happens frequently, and is an aspect of municipal governance not often highlighted.

These are the moments that municipal governance junkies like myself like to see. Elected representatives bringing concerns they have heard from residents into a council discussion that resulted in some sensible amendments agreed upon for the new burn bylaw. Democracy in action, ratepayer representation in action.

The tweaks to the burn bylaw made by council on Monday might seem minor on the surface, but they are important to many. After some discussion, council agreed to adjust the cutoff time for backyard fires from midnight to 1 a.m., and they removed the cutoff all together for properties larger than one acre. That makes sense.

Most folks have enjoyed sitting fireside on a starry summer night, I know that I have. And I also know that midnight is a little early for a cutoff particularly on large rural properties, so I think the 1 a.m. compromise was a wise change for council to make. Keep in mind that there won’t be bylaw or fire service vehicles roaming the municipality at 1:01 a.m. to find folks with fires burning; like all bylaws in this municipality, enforcement is driven by complaints.

Members of council were cognizant of the reality that a small number of residents like to weaponize municipal bylaws in order to penalize a neighbour they might not like, though Meaford’s fire chief advised council that systems are in place to identify frequent complainers, and to act accordingly.

The fire chief stressed to council that the purpose of establishing a more comprehensive burn permit process is to keep the community safe, and to ensure that those who choose to have a fire on their property are aware of the rules, and that they follow them. The chief also noted that the emphasis will be on education in order to achieve compliance.

Another minor but important change council requested on Monday was that the appropriate wind speed for backyard fires be adjusted. As Councillor Bartley pointed out, 10 km/hr winds are common, and they don’t make having a fire dangerous. Council agreed to direct staff to adjust the wording of the new burn bylaw to reflect a wind limit of 20 km/hr instead; again I think this makes sense.

During Monday’s discussion, council found ways to tweak the burn permit bylaw in order to accommodate the real concerns of residents, and that is why we elect them.

No bylaw will please everyone of course, and as one reader who was watching the meeting by livestream noted in an email sent to me during council’s meeting on Monday, of all of the considerations discussed regarding the burn bylaw, at no time did a member of council suggest that no burning be allowed at all. The reader pointed to Meaford’s declaration of a climate emergency, and the many environmental initiatives that have been undertaken by the municipality in recent years.

What happened to our Municipal Climate Change priority?” the reader asked. “We are all about tree canopies & trails & wellness, but let’s burn baby burn.”

A valid, though no doubt unpopular, point that highlights our general hypocrisy when it comes to the climate change issue.

One important note that should be made is that there is no cost for burn permits, and for the average resident with a backyard fireplace or small fire pit, you will only need to obtain your permit once each year, and the permit service will be accessible from your phone or computer. For larger fires there is also no charge, and the permit can also be obtained using your smart phone or computer, literally minutes before you desire to start a fire.

Some have noted the wording in the bylaw that provides for a future fee structure should it ever be desired, and they have asked why that wording isn’t removed, but the reality is that the same would be true in the absence of that wording; fees can be implemented for a variety of things without previous wording suggesting it as a possibility in a bylaw. That said, there has been no indication by any member of council that there is an appetite for a fee structure, but the reality is that fire services come at a cost, and a burn permit system also carries a cost. For now that cost is not being passed along to residents, it is simply a part of the fire services budget. There is no fee for a burn permit, but there certainly is a cost, so as it stands we are all paying that cost, though some might argue that only those who have fires on their properties should pay the cost of a permit system, not those who never have fires. At the end of the day, a fire burn permit system is aimed at protecting the entire community, so who pays and how is somewhat irrelevant, to my mind.

Staff will prepare a new bylaw that will include the amendments approved by council, and the revised bylaw will be before council for a vote in the coming weeks.

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