Tori Sutton, Stratford Gazette
City staff are to bring forward a new report on a contentious Erie Street building.
The building, at 217 Erie St., contains an automotive shop and three residential units – two on the second storey and one on the main floor.
Under the current zoning, residential units are not allowed in the building.
In early September, city council turned down a zone change application requesting two units be permitted in the building.
At the time, planner Jeff Bannon said the city’s guidelines did not allow any residential units in a building with an automotive use, and that the application was not consistent with the city’s Official Plan.
Ontario Building Code permits only one residential unit in a building with such a use.
However, the building’s owner, Lori Thomas, fought back at Monday’s council meeting, seeking clarification on the issue.
Thomas noted she has been battling the city in court for three years over the issue – something that was not included in background information in the most recent zone change application – and was confused by information she had received.
When she purchased the building in 2003, the three residential units were already established and had been for some time.
She said tax assessments dating back to 1995 indicate there are both commercial and residential uses on the property.
She was unaware there was an issue with the legality of the apartments until after a routine inspection of the building triggered by her desire to improve fire safety standards.
For the last three years, she’s been battling the city in court over the need for a zone change on the property. The court ruled in the city’s favour, though she plans to appeal.
Thomas said if she could prove the apartments were established before 1979, they would be grandfathered in and allowed under the city’s bylaw.
However, she can only track down the building owner as far back as 1984.
A brief change in use – the garage was home to a plumbing shop for a year before reverting to its automotive use – has also complicated matters, she said.
“This was the only reason we couldn’t possibly be grandfathered in under the existing non-conforming rule,” Thomas said.
“Instead, I was fined $12,500. I’ve matched that in lawyer fees and I’m officially out of money.”
One of Thomas’s biggest issues is the misinformation she said has been given by a bylaw enforcement officer over the years.
She produced emails from the officer stating one residential unit is permitted in the building under the current zoning, which is contrary to what she is now being told by the city.
“Where is the accountability?” Thomas questioned, of the conflicting information provided by city staff. “It baffles me.”
Currently, only one unit is occupied. Going on the information provided by bylaw enforcement, that use is permitted and applying for the zone change was a waste of money, she said.
“I don’t see the need for me to apply for a zone change if were allowed one (unit),” Thomas said.
CAO Ron Shaw said he would not comment on staff accountability in a public forum, but suggested city staff is not in a position to overrule council decisions or Ontario Building Code.
Shaw and the city’s chief building official met with Thomas last week, and the plan is to have staff come back with a recommendation for one unit only – which would meet Ontario Building Code – and to expedite it as quickly as possible.
“We are doing everything we can to move this forward but all that can be supported at this point in time is one unit,” he said.
He noted even if council did approve three apartment units, the chief building official would not be able to issue building permits as it contradicts provincial code.
Thomas has been actively seeking to modernize fire barriers in the units for several years, work that requires such permits.
Coun. Bonnie Henderson expressed concern council hadn’t been given the full story when the initial zone change was presented.
“I think I’m a little baffled to hear what is going on here,” said Henderson.
“I hadn’t heard any of this before so I am wondering why it was being presented to council they wanted to build two units up there when there were already bought.
“I don’t like to be caught like this.”
Coun. Karen Smythe asked Thomas if she researched the building before she bought it.
“It should have been clear in your mind what you were purchasing,” she said.
Coun. George Brown suggested Thomas consider knocking down some walls to create one large two or three-bedroom apartment instead of having two one-bedroom apartments.
Thomas acknowledged that may be the only option as renting one unit for storage would not bring in as much money, nor would its second-floor location be appealing to many for that use.