Activism

Open Letter to Business Owners Struggling with Antiquated By-Laws

By Tanya Ritchie
Published August 08, 2011

The Hamilton Guest House, Hamilton's first backpackers' hostel, is open for business. Unfortunately, at reduced capacity. Since our altercation with City by-law last May, we have been reduced to only three guests per night.

At $20 per night... that's right. Not exactly a money-spinner.

I've spoken to just about everyone who knows anything about zoning in this city. In the last two months I've learned my way around City Hall. Almost to an individual, people have expressed enthusiasm for the idea of the hostel, even disbelief that in a city of our size, this is the first.

Many city staff also warned me to beware of "agitators". They like people who work with them. I tried to do this because, like them, I believe it's important that there be a process. There has to be oversight. I'm not advocating a development free-for-all.

But anyone can tell you that a city that prefers parking lots to progress is following the wrong manual. For most of the city, the current set of by-laws regarding zoning were written in the 1950s. The red tape for change-of-use in perfectly good buildings is ludicrous. Costs are prohibitive. Waiting times are absurd.

So many people are trying to help this city raise itself up, but our dreams are being decimated, reduced to a shadow of their ideal, or closed down completely. Because of by-law enforcement, many of these fledgling business owners are too nervous to put their hands up and say that it's not fair.

I'm scared, too. But I'm not breaking any laws, and all I want is to talk to those like me, who have had their dreams and businesses crushed. It would be an insult to all those agitators who stuck their necks out for us in May, if I were to just take the City's orders and shut up.

Anyone wishing to discuss this with me is encouraged to email me at: notovogons@gmail.com.

Tanya Ritchie is an immigrant who moved to Hamilton ten years ago and lives in Ward 3. She is the co-owner of Hamilton Guest House, Hamilton's only backpackers' hostel.

23 Comments

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2011 at 08:20:09

Tanya;

Great article.

This is the stuff of an RTH salon/seminar...or looking at things on a larger scale, a town hall meeting.

It's interesting you mention the 50s. This was a watershed time for Hamilton. (It was also when things were beginning to get very, very good for the city.) That we seem to be burdened by heritage mindsets more than half a century later as much as our 'legacy malaise' in moving forward.

But you can't solve a problem until you acknowledge what it is.

Good luck; I believe things will getting better, soon.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 08:29:48

Congratulations Tanya on getting your business up and running again. I was pleasantly surprised to see your guest house on a recent internet search. I actually just recommended your place to an oversees acquaintance who is in Canada for the first time and is looking to explore Hamilton/Niagara.

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By jason (registered) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 09:09:04

Kudos for doing this Tanya. I've heard countless stories over recent years of city hall strangling small business start-ups with crazy requirements for more parking or paying a fee to the city if you want to open on Locke or James and don't have a parking lot. Duh! I don't want parking lots on Locke or James - they are one of the main reasons why Main Street SUCKS. Look at all the trouble people have to go through to get patios on Locke Street. It's crazy.

No kidding our bylaws were written in the 50's. Too much of how we function was commonplace in the 50's.

Good luck Tanya. I hope you can organize a large number of local businesses who aren't looking to burn bridges at city hall, but press for 21st Century changes so our city can succeed again.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-08-08 09:18:29

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2011 at 09:15:36

The new Official Plan actually fixes a lot of the major issues with our existing by-laws. The problem is that it is stuck in Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeals and will not come into effect for another 2-5 years.

In the meantime, planning staff were developing a comprehensive secondary plan for the east-west B-Line corridor that would overlay the old zoning rules with a new, simplified set of rules (similar to what Toronto did with the King-Spadina Secondary Plan), but it looks like Chris Murray just suspended that program when he suspended all non-essential LRT work.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2011 at 12:29:18 in reply to Comment 67628

Chris Murray just suspended that program when he suspended all non-essential LRT work

Vote the bum out!

Wait...

crap.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2011 at 14:28:15

A friend of a friend was recently complaining that she got stuck with a ~$400 "awning fee" to licence an awning over the door of her new business. Nothing fancy, just an awning over the door with the business name printed on it, and no, not a penny of the fee went toward the awning itself. She was understandably confused and annoyed.

The HGH is an example of horrible legislation. The text of the law was obviously totally insufficient to regulate this type of business - so whatur do they do? Adjust the law? No, they punished the Guest House owners and clients for their own failures. We badly need an appeals process which doesn't just mean re-submitting the same issue before the same group of unelected bureaucrats. If these laws really exist to protect communities (rather than just stifling competition for our largest businesses), then why not put them to communities to decide?

One more reason that this town badly needs more grassroots democratic institutions.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 14:55:55

I suspect "the agitators" are the ones who got so fed up with playing nice and after getting kicked in the teeth, shin, groin, etc, so many times they said either I put up, get out or rage against the machine.

That's how an agitator is born...

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By Downtown Downer (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 16:21:24

The argument is: This is the law, sorry if it doesn't suit you, but this is what it is. I've heard as much from Councillor Morelli during the Pearl Company struggles. I would ask Gary Santucci nicely if you could rent out space at the Pearl for this "agitator" meeting and see if some kind of small, unique business coalition can't be formed.

As to agitators, it is probably always easier to get things done with honey then to battle and fight: I'm looking at you Matt Jelly! :]

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted August 08, 2011 at 20:27:13 in reply to Comment 67670

Hey! I've been good lately.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 17:43:38 in reply to Comment 67670

"The argument is: This is the law, sorry if it doesn't suit you, but this is what it is. I've heard as much from Councillor Morelli during the Pearl Company struggles."

Laws change, adapt, modernized, and can be influenced by sufficient interest from citizens. Also, there can be administrative tolerances where they don't "enforce the law" because they realize it is antiquated, contrary to public policy, or in error due to an oversight. Nowhere is this more true than in municipal law, where it is relatively eash to change the law, as compared to say, federally or provincially.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 17:29:56 in reply to Comment 67670

As to agitators, it is probably always easier to get things done with honey then to battle and fight: I'm looking at you Matt Jelly! :]

Looks like your definition of who qualifies as an 'agitator' is pretty subjective. I have no doubt it was Santucci who staff were referring to as an 'agitator'. The Pearl Company would be long gone if he had taken the advice you are now dolling out to Jelly, and frankly Jelly's bylaw and garbage crawls have been a model of cooperation between citizens and staff.

From where I'm sitting, it looks as though Jelly reserves most of his 'agitation' for our elected representatives, which is as it should be. They're supposed to be working for us after all.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 18:00:28

I think the term agitator gets a bad rap just like elitist, yuppie, hipster or whatever. Jelly and co should be held up a progressives not dismissed.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 01:26:27 in reply to Comment 67681

Didn't 'They' used to call folks who disagreed, "Hippies", at Council Meetings?
(ROTFLMAO!)
Maybe some have progressed from the 50's into the 60's & decided that the enemy isn't "Beatniks".

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By Akbar (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 21:12:51 in reply to Comment 67681

insult spam deleted

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-08-08 21:24:19

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By Tanya (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 20:14:24

Thanks for the supportive responses. Firstly, I have no idea specifically who was meant by the term "agitator", but possibly they meant anyone who doesn't shut up and do as they're told. Secondly, let me spell out the problem:

I believe in working within the law, I'm no anarchist. I believe strongly in improving this city by legislation and by independent investors and business owners. This city needs all the help it can get. Google the Lonely Planet travel guide and see the absolutely GLOWING review they give our city. And city hall is happy for it to stay this way? Who wins with the status quo?

To get back on-point, "there has to be a process" was the most often-repeated phrase. However, this "process" is: 1. Shut down 2. Pay for inspections, architects, etc 3. Pay for variance or zoning change 4. Pay for utterly unnecessary work to be done 5. Once finished, go to committee, then wait for committee do decide if we can re-open 6. If anyone objects the committee rules against us, in which case we can appeal 7. If we lose the appeal, we are out of options.

Great process. As a gent from the planning department told me with the most misplaced glee I've ever heard, "it would take years, years and thousands of dollars."

What's more, in the specific case of the hostel, I have it on good authority that the theoretical zoning changes will make no difference, we are still not am acknowledged category.

Sorry to rant.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 01:29:30 in reply to Comment 67690

I think the word that says it all is, "Pay".

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By Tanya (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2011 at 22:51:27

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/canada/ontario/hamilton

And, in case you're wondering: yes, I do think I know a way to work through this.

My purpose in writing this is not to throw fuel on the fire or start a row. I know there are many others in the city in similar quagmires, and I would like very much to discuss this situation with them. Even if we can't improve anything, at least it will be group therapy.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted August 09, 2011 at 13:08:11

How possible is it to organize a Town Hall meeting?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 17:01:03

Is this just a way to get around following the rules? If it is a campaign to try and change the rules, I'm all for it. Reducing government red tape is great, but not at the expense of making other people foot the tax bill. It seems something more to the story has never been explained by the owners of The Pearl Company, Hamilton Hostel, or anyone else. Why would they honestly curtail your business? Unless their is more...

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By Tanya (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 17:30:57 in reply to Comment 68002

I'm glad you're all for it, because that's the general idea. I'm not opposed to by-laws (or even red tape, in moderation), but the laws must be reasonable and they must apply to everyone. I certainly have not suggested that anyone but we foot the tax bill, I'm not sure if this comment has anything to do with this situation. I am absolutely baffled as to the "why" of this, and if there's anything that I haven't fully explained, or any question you want to ask, please, I implore you to ask.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 22:14:57

Quick reply. It just seems to be that a city like Hamilton would have bigger issues to tend to

http://raisethehammer.org/article/1435/council_should_do_the_right_thing_at_245_catherine_street_north

then picking on a residential property/backpackers. I've looked up your website and it looks like you only rent out to a handful of people on any given night, what is the cities motivation to close you down? I'm supposing that there may be some behind the scenes battles with your councillor, or you've pissed off someone. I live on Wentworth Street South and believe me rooming houses run rampant. Same goes for the Pearl, they must have been too abrasive in their dealings. I could be dead wrong, and please correct me if I am.

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By Tanya (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 23:40:57 in reply to Comment 68013

It would seem to me, too, that the city has bigger fish to fry. As for abrasive dealings; no, nothing of the kind. I'm completely nonplussed, not only by our situation, but by many others that I've heard about, including the Pearl. We have had no dealings of any kind with our local councilor, at least not before we were ordered to close.

Frankly, I am buggered if I know what the motivation is to close any of us down. We are running good businesses, paying taxes, restoring broken down buildings and adding to neighborhoods. Where's the fault? I can only assume that we pissed off some vindictive arsehole, and now the city is following their complaint and the letter of the outdated law.

P.S. There are two boarded up apartment buildings on Wentwoth south, I wish I knew who owns them and if they're savable.

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By Downtown Downer (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2011 at 22:19:28

I think it is abundantly clear what Tanya is trying to do and say here. She has got a glimpse of the outdated laws and would like others who are struggling with them and the city to band together. Did she stutter? Was she obtuse? No it all looks perfectly straightforward. You would assume they did some grave injustice to someone at city hall, but that is not the case I am sure. It is run more like a lottery I think as far as enforcement goes. Some head of the division says, "Ok, get out there and write up some of these rundown slums in Ward 2" and then a blitz happens. Then nothing. Good luck with your fight Hamilton Guest House.

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