Any council candidates who attended Monday's council meeting were afforded a fine lesson in the complexity of serving on council, and the reality that just because something can be done, doesn't mean it necessarily should be done.
Council covered a lot of ground on a number of issues on Monday, but the hot-button issue of the day was on paper a seemingly simple decision to make on a simple zoning amendment request, but life doesn't happen on paper.
More often than not, planning and zoning bylaws are practically a rubber stamp affair that don't cause much grief for councillors, but every now and then one crops up that brings about concerns for some residents. In this case, owners of residential homes surrounding the commercially zoned property where a proponent had hoped to build a small six-room hotel with no on-site services and no staff.
The proponent characterized the development as a 'boutique hotel' while neighbouring residents and some members of council saw it as an Airbnb style service, and not exactly a hotel.
As I have written previously, Meaford does indeed need both more long-term accommodation options as well as more hotel/motel space for visitors, but I agree with the concerned residents that the tiny property on Boucher St. is likely not the best location for a number of reasons. Had the proposal been for a different property, less embedded in a residential neighbourhood, I think council would likely have heard nothing but support for the plan.
On paper, council had no reason to reject the request. It was nothing out of the ordinary, it fit with Meaford's official plan, and it conformed with normal uses of a commercially zoned property.
Seems simple, right?
As I said, life doesn't happen on paper, and the neighbouring residents did what any resident should do if they are concerned about something like this – they took their concerns to council, and they didn't let up until council voted on the issue.
Councillor Tony Bell was right to point out that even if something falls within the rules and can be done, it doesn't necessarily mean that it should be done. Bell, along with his fellow councillors, listened to the residents, they studied, they asked questions, and in the end, five of the seven members on council sided with the concerns expressed by residents, and voted to reject the zoning amendment request.
But it wasn't easy. Council grappled with the issue in July, and after extensive debate and discussion they opted to defer a decision until September in order to allow themselves more time to investigate and reflect on the issue – you can't really ask more of a council than that in a situation like this.
After having more than a month to mull the issue, and after another round of residents expressing their concerns at the start of Monday's meeting, council still needed a significant amount of time to talk through the issue, and asked more questions of planning staff before bringing the agenda item to a vote.
I am certain that most councillors who voted against approving the zoning amendment were torn. Torn because no council likes to say no to new development, particularly a type of development that has been widely recognized as badly needed in this community. In a different location, one not on a tiny property that would see the 'hotel' breathing down the necks of its neighbours, I suspect that the majority of councillors, if not all of them, would have supported the proposal.
In a previous editorial I suggested that this issue was somewhat of a catch-22 for council, and that is exactly what it was. The two members of council who voted in favour of the zoning amendment on Monday weren't in the wrong. They are fully correct that Meaford could use a business such as had been proposed, and they are fully correct that all of the rules and regulations and bylaws and official plans have no conflict with the proposal on a C1 property. At the same time, residents and the other members of council were not wrong to highlight some of the potential issues with the proposed facility on that piece of property, and the notion that it just 'doesn't fit' with the immediate neighbourhood.
Being the cynic that I am, I am always on the lookout for the NIMBY folks. As we all know, there are some that will object to anything new in their backyard, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all, but that isn't what was going on in this situation. The residents had genuine concerns, not frivolous complaints.
So to those candidates, some of whom were in the council chamber on Monday taking in the meeting, council decisions aren't always easy, and sometimes you're forced to make a decision on an issue where all sides have valid points and nobody is really wrong.
It's a tough job – I hope the slate of candidates are all up for it if they get elected.