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St. Jacobs residents push back against proposal to ease noise restrictions

Woolwich councillors have been getting an earful over plans to revise the township’s noise bylaw, particularly from St. Jacobs residents concerned about changes to their community.

Plans to ease restrictions on amplified music, for instance, have people there concerned concessions made during the pandemic will see the rise of more nightlife in the normally quiet village. Elected officials heard plenty of opposition ahead of Monday night’s meeting to discuss the bylaw, and even more during the session. While the new bylaw would apply township-wide, St. Jacobs residents saw challenges ahead.

Residents took issue with most of the process, from the lack of public consultation and survey methodology to the subjective nature of what constitutes “unreasonable noise.” Council, too, shared some concerns, ultimately deferring a decision until more public input could be gathered.

If the feedback to date is any indication, the township bylaw enforcement staff recommending the changes face an uphill battle.

St. Jacobs resident Michelle Booth, for instance, argued people in the community “want quiet” and have been dealing with “inconsiderate businesses” for at least a couple of years without recourse.

“We value these quiet neighbourhoods. We value a less hectic pace of life. We are not Waterloo – we are quiet, well-maintained, treed communities and streets,” she said.

Fellow resident Lowell Williamson challenged the validity of the process, particularly an emphasis on talking with members of the St. Jacobs Business Improvement Area (BIA) and not the general public.

“I contend that the consultation process for the noise bylaw exemption was flawed. Residents were not given the opportunity as businesses were to give their opinions,” he said, pointing to the survey process’ lack of legitimacy.

Likewise, Raymond Skarratt challenged staff’s conclusion, noting most residents were not in support of the changes, as shown by the survey’s own data.

“I strongly object to the proposed changes to the noise bylaw. The changes appear to strongly favour business interests, with little recourse for residents of St. Jacobs,” said Spring Street resident Claire Bowman in a letter submitted to council.

The reservations were reflected in councillors’ comments.

Coun. Larry Shantz said the provision of up to eight exemptions per month belied the idea of a special occasion.

“A special event is a special event, not a regularly occurring event,” he argued.

Allowing someone to apply for up to eight exemptions per month could mean Friday and Saturday nights all month, suggested Mayor Sandy Shantz.

Coun. Patrick Merlihan balked at what he said amounted to a subsidy for businesses that apply for such exemptions.

The report’s proposal to have a bylaw enforcement officer on hand at every event granted an exemption would outstrip the $60 fee, with costs estimated at $100 to $130.

 “I would like to see the fees for exemptions to at least cover the costs of the exemption,” he said, adding that the fines should be increased as well.

He also raised the issue of new noise exemptions leading to a de facto change in the culture of St. Jacobs without much in the way of discussion.

That echoed remarks from Spring Street resident Stephen Baetz.

“Who do we want to become?” he asked, adding a noise bylaw should be drafted accordingly, not the other way around.

BIA representative Craig Miller argued the traditional business model in the village, one driven by daytime tourism, is no longer working. He said business owners are looking to stay open later, with hospitality services in the evening.

He found an advocate in Coun. Scott McMillan, who argued in favour of allowing the changes to go ahead, subject to a review if problems surface.

In order to support the businesses, allowing them some changes makes sense, he said, drawing parallels to the Elmira BIA’s attempts to foster an environment beyond a bedroom communiy.

“I do want the people who live in St. Jacobs to be able to walk to an establishment in St. Jacobs and not have to go into Waterloo or Kitchener to have the same type of experience,” said McMillan. “I’d like to give this a shot.”

The rest of the councillors, however, opted for a deferral for at least a couple of months to allow for more public input.

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