Tempers flare at Centre Wellington all-candidates meeting

Two mayoral candidates accuse moderator of favouring their opponent

ELORA – The all-candidates meeting hosted by the Guelph Wellington branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario on Oct.12 got off to an explosive start.

Mayoral candidates Neil Dunsmore and Shawn Watters chastised moderator Ian Rankine for publicly supporting their opponent Bob Foster, who is running for the same position.

“Typically, the moderator is a neutral party and asks open-ended questions that allow speakers some flexibility in their responses. That is not the case here tonight,” Dunsmore said.

“Everybody knows the moderator has a massive Bob Foster sign on his lawn and has been sending emails defending Bob Foster to residents.

“And the lengthy preamble to each question is extremely leading, guiding us to an answer.”

Dunsmore also accused organizers of appropriating his campaign tag line “you can rely on me” when they worded the questions.

Watters said the moderator should be “openly impartial” – a requirement for such an event – but that is not the case given Rankine’s obvious support for Foster.

Watters also interrupted Foster’s speech, claiming Foster had gone over the five minutes the candidates had been allotted for answers.

Dunsmore was cut off at five minutes and then was allowed to finish his sentence. Foster had been speaking for five minutes, 21 seconds when Watters interjected.

(*This article has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly stated Foster was speaking for over eight minutes when Watters spoke up.)

“What happened to five minutes?” Watters called out. “This is not fair. You have a prepared speech there that’s going on and on.”

Foster then quickly wrapped up his speech.

The organization posed three questions to candidates after previously circulating a four-page document with the questions and background material it felt was pertinent.

The questions:

  • If elected, can the community rely on you to respect and conserve the low-rise character of the heritage areas of our historic small towns of Elora and Fergus by voting “No” to any development project within a heritage area which seeks to increase the current maximum building height prescribed today in the township’s Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw?
  • If elected, can the community rely on you to vote against allowing the construction of additional residential units (ARU) within the boundaries of the Elora and Fergus heritage areas?
  • If elected, can the community rely on you to vote to make both the development pre-consultation planning process and the planning process by which planning applications are deemed complete, to be open and accessible to the community and to the advisory committees of council when a proposed development is located within the heritage areas of our unique historic small towns of Elora and Fergus?

Dunsmore said he would not support building heights of more than four storeys in the historic areas and the fourth storey must be stepped back.

He is in favour of ARUs as a way of adding density and getting more rental housing in the township. Good design is the way new can be compatible with old, he said.

“With thoughtful design, this can be done without any impact to heritage,” he said.

Dunsmore noted Heritage Centre Wellington, the township’s citizen advisory committee, examines and researches any application to alter a heritage building and they do an admirable job.

But overall, addressing the housing shortage is about balancing heritage protection with affordable and attainable housing, Dunsmore said.

Watters said he respects the low-rise character of the two downtowns and any proposals requesting more height need to be decided on a site-by-site basis.

As an example, he noted the Pearle Hospitality development in Elora has taken advantage of the change in grade on its property on the south side of the Grand River and is building condos that have three storeys on one side and six storeys where the ground slopes to the river.

Watters said he is in favour of ARUs and listed micro homes, granny suites, basement apartments and housing over garages as ways to add density without impacting farmland.

These, too, should be evaluated on a site-by-site basis, he added.

“We need to have people living in the core and core areas to have viable, inviting downtowns,” he said.

Foster said he has fought tirelessly for heritage protection, and he has doubts about the prediction that there isn’t enough affordable housing in Centre Wellington.

“It’s the same song from 30 years ago,” he said, adding in the 1990s housing prices skyrocketed and people feared they would never be able to buy a home.

Then the market corrected, and he and his wife found they could afford a house.

“House prices are correcting,” he said. “I do believe increasing housing supply when home prices are clearly falling will make these price reductions even worse.”

To the three questions, Foster answered yes, yes and yes.

“Do we conserve the small-town feel and low-rise character of our communities or should be intensify and destroy those communities for the sake of increasing housing supply?” he asked.

Councillor candidates

Each of the township council candidates then got to speak.

Ward 1 candidate Lisa MacDonald said in addition to heritage concerns, she has concerns about Air BnBs in the township, which take away from the long-term rental stock and add to the parking problems that plague Ward 1.

“We don’t have a bylaw for (Air BnBs),” she said.

“That will be a thing this new council will have to deal with.”

MacDonald pointed to Niagara-on-the-Lake as an example of a small town that relies on tourism and that somehow managed to address parking while preserving heritage buildings.

She supports the tree bylaw as trees are heritage too, she said, and would like a planning process that is open, public, clear and keeps decision out of the hands of the Ontario Land Tribunal.

Her opponent Jonathon Davis did not attend.

In Ward 2, Kim Jefferson said she understands the heritage concerns.

“I do think some development downtown could be utilized, but we should not have buildings towering over heritage buildings,” she said.

Her issue with developers is that they never include enough parking for tenants and their visitors and that just adds to the already pressing issue of a lack of parking in the downtowns.

She sat on the advisory committee that looked at the Community Planning Permit System and sees how it could streamline the permission process for developers.

“The next council will have to be progressive,” she said.

Also running in Ward 2 is Kirk McElwain, who said he supports protecting both the natural and built heritage areas of Centre Wellington.

He said the urban design guidelines remain in draft form, as does the cultural heritage landscape study and he’d like to see them formalized.

He would also like a return to the development review meeting that kept councillors up to speed on development applications.

But he could not answer “yes” to the questions.

“I cannot say I won’t support any proposal. I would need complete and factual information to make an informed decision,” he said.

Eric Nealson, also running in Ward 2, was not present.

Running in Ward 3, Dave Kenny said no one wants to see high-rises in the downtowns, “but it begs the question what do to with the people who want to live here?

“There’s a lot of area in Centre Wellington that is outside heritage areas. To avoid urban sprawl, we have to build up. I think we can do that in other areas of town,” he said.

Barb Lustgarten-Evoy said the official plan should be amended to clearly state that buildings cannot be more than three storeys in heritage districts.

Strengthening urban design guidelines will also make for better and beautiful downtowns, she said.

Neil Armstrong said Fergus and Elora’s downtowns are different and need to be handled differently. That’s why he can’t say “yes” to the questions put to council hopefuls.

“It’s not as simple as yes or no,” he said.

“Parking, infrastructure – they need to be addressed as well. Collaboration is the only way these projects will succeed.”

Ray Trafford said the three-storey height restriction in the downtowns is appropriate but he’s cautious about making blanket statements.

He said incentives should be offered to downtown businesses to convert their second storeys into apartments – a move he called “cautious intensification.”

Deb Taylor noted the questions asked at the event were vastly different from the questions posted on the ACO provincial website.

She could say “yes” to each of those questions, but not to those posed by the local chapter.

“I say no to the first two because it means no to providing more housing,” she said.

Affordable, attainable housing is a problem, and it won’t correct itself, she said.

On the third question about a more open planning process, “I think we are open,” she said.

James Mantelos sent his regrets.

In Ward 4, Jennifer Adams said planning decisions should be based on their merits and while protecting heritage buildings is important, so is protecting the environment, clean drinking water, and maintaining infrastructure.

“Many towns do smart growth and protect heritage. I believe we can do this,” she said.

Brock Aldersley, also running in Ward 4, did not attend the event.

In Ward 5 Bronwynne Wilton said not only is there a housing crisis in Centre Wellington, there is a climate crisis too.

There is value in protecting heritage, “but we have to protect agricultural land too. That will take careful design and thoughtful planning,” she said.

She said a truck bypass around Fergus will also improve the heritage aspect of the downtown.

In Ward 6, Dennis Craddock said growth needs a balanced approach.

He added intensification is needed and all development proposals need to be considered.

He worried that if a developer was to take a proposal to the land tribunal, “that would take the decision out of our hands,” he said. Collaboration is the way forward, he said.

Rick Schroeder, also running in Ward 6, sent his regrets.

County council candidates

Running for county council in Ward 5 are Mary Lloyd and Randy Vaine.

Most of the questions do not apply at the county level, but Lloyd said she is opposed to downtown building heights over three storeys.

She said Heritage Centre Wellington does important work and helps council make decisions about heritage buildings.

Vaine is a councillor in Grimsby, where he fought against developers to preserve heritage.

“If we do planning and heritage properly, we can retain our small-town feel,” he said.

Running for a Ward 6 county council seat are Melanie Lang and Diane Ballantyne.

Lang said it’s important to maintain heritage but also noted the need for:

  • increased density and an open planning process;
  • more green spaces and active transportation routes; and
  • protecting trees.

“We need a human-centred approach,” she said.

Ballantyne said while the county doesn’t have a direct role in township planning decisions, she does believe heritage buildings need to be protected.

She added the county must allow a wide array of housing types – duplexes, triplexes, ARUs – and do away with exclusionary zoning.

“Every area we make unavailable to growth and change means it has to be done somewhere else,” she said.