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Town to investigate how to deal with vacant “eyesore” properties in downtown St. Marys

By Galen Simmons

St. Marys town staff will soon bring a report for council’s consideration outlining all the tools council has in its municipal toolbox for dealing with vacant and damaged “eyesore” properties in the downtown core.

At its June 25 meeting, council approved a motion introduced by Coun. Jim Craigmile to have staff present council with all the options it has at its disposal for either enforcing property standards on or penalizing owners of vacant buildings downtown.

“A month, a month and a half ago, Coun. (Dave) Lucas forwarded on some correspondence that he had found in doing his research about, in Manitoba, what Portage la Prairie was doing with some issues they had with buildings in their community of I believe it was 13,000 people,” Craigmile said, introducing this motion.

“In the article, (the bylaw) had only passed reading once, but it talked about eyesores, derelict buildings, poor upkeep affecting other properties, problems with social and economic things in the area whether it be criminal activities, whether it be fire hazards – no different than what we talked about in this town. I’m sure every town and every community has these and what can you do or what tools are in the toolbox that you can use?”

According to a May 29 article published on the PortageOnline news website, the City of Portage la Prairie is set to introduce a new bylaw aimed at improving the management of vacant and derelict properties and reducing social, health and financial risk factors associated with neglected buildings.

In the article, the city’s public safety chair, Coun. Collin Doyle, said taking action on unsafe properties in the community has historically included court proceedings which could take up to two years to begin and he's hopeful to see a new set of regulations to expedite the process.

"This bylaw will provide clear authority for the city to take decisive action in addressing these properties,” he was quoted as saying. “It will also implement an escalating fee structure to encourage property owners to proactively manage and rehabilitate their boarded-up vacant homes. It aligns with the priorities set forth in our council's strategic plan and it aims to encourage reinvestment in our already established neighbourhoods."

In St. Marys, Craigmile said he’s hoping the town will be able to enact a similar bylaw, but he acknowledges the town’s lack of bylaw enforcement could prove to be a hurdle, so he asked staff to bring back a report on the legislation in Ontario and the options available to the town in dealing with vacant, derelict buildings, specifically – at least to start – in St. Marys’ downtown core and heritage district.

“I’m not thinking of a building where … (you’ve) got six units in it and five of them are being utilized and one tenant leaves. No, I’m thinking of something that just sits there vacant for whatever and people are infiltrating it,” Craigmile said. “It’s difficult even for the owners, but if they’re not local and they’re not caring then I do believe there needs to be something in the town. It’s just an eyesore and I think it’s a real fire hazard or potentially really bad.”

“I would support anything like this,” added Lucas. “The more I think about it … it does become a fire hazard. If you’ve got a property that is not being entered on a regular basis – again, maybe this is something we need to add into this – we need to have regular fire inspections. I’m thinking as a property owner (with) a recently redeveloped building that’s maybe next to a building that nobody’s in and out of for months, I would be concerned as a neighbouring property owner that there are protections in place from a safety standpoint.”

Deputy mayor Brogan Aylward, council’s representative on the St. Marys BIA board, said BIA members have been asking the town to do something about vacant and derelict buildings downtown for years, and he suggested town staff consult with the BIA before bringing back a report on the options available.

Before Craigmile’s motion was approved unanimously, Coun. Marg Luna also suggested staff investigate if the town can collect information on whether these vacant buildings are insured.

While Craigmile noted that town staff are busy and this report shouldn’t be a top priority, he said he is hopeful staff will bring back information that will allow council to move ahead in addressing this issue.

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