Township targets derelict property
The Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands wants to put more teeth in its bylaws to force scofflaw owners of derelict property to clean up their act.
Township council is considering ideas such as increasing fines and enforcement staff and clarifying the rules so that the municipality can crack down on the worst offenders.
Now, property standards enforcement is complaint-driven, meaning that the bylaw officers act only if a neighbour or somebody else actually calls township offices with a complaint. And residents are sometimes reluctant to make a complaint for fear of retaliation once their neighbours find out, council was told.
Enforcement is now a slow process, the penalties are minor, and some neighbours say they have complained about properties for years without results. The landowners are given weeks to clean up their properties, and they can avoid penalties by doing a small cleanup before the deadline and then start again piling junk and garbage.
Against this backdrop, township council recently debated revising the township’s property standards to crack down on unsightly, unkept and unhealthy property.
As several councillors said, it’s a complicated matter. The municipality has to find a middle ground between the lax, anything-goes attitude of the township for the past 20 years and the image of jack-booted inspectors trolling in search of offenders to apply arbitrary fines. Or, in the words of Coun. Gerry Last, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
Planner Elaine Mallory said the wording in the new bylaw should be as precise as possible because the idea of acceptable property standards can be very subjective.
“For example, toys, wood or tools piled on a lawn, front porch or in a carport may be an eyesore to some, but to others are a normal part of enjoyment of one’s property,” she writes in a report to council. “Having naturalized vacant lands, which would include long grasses, have environmental advantages, but to others are unsightly, particularly in villages.”
Coun. Liz Huff said there are a handful of chronic offenders in the township and there is no question that they violate property standards.
“What I’m really bothered by is people who are living in terrible conditions where there are probably no toilets in some of the buildings,” said Huff, adding she is concerned for the people living there as well as the neighbours who must put up with the smell.
“There are people with junk in their yard to the point that you can’t see any part of the yard.”
Huff said the township needs a law that it can use as a hammer to bring the five or six worst offenders into line.
She also wanted the bylaw to be flexible enough to apply different standards to rural and agricultural properties from the rules applied in the township’s hamlets. A farm might have some abandoned farm machinery in a field, she said. In one of the hamlets, that same farm machinery in a front yard would be an eyesore.
Coun. Vicki Leakey also said the township should steer clear of black-and-white rules. An old barn with a collapsed roof is part of the rural landscape, she said.
Mallory said the bylaw could be written to apply different standards depending on zoning and location.
Coun. John Paul Jackson said health and safety, fire and environmental concerns should be paramount in bylaw enforcement. While a tumbledown barn might not be a problem, a decaying garage in a village might become an unsafe place where kids hang out to smoke, or could be overrun by rodents, he said.
An abandoned car in a field might look rustic from afar, but if it is leaking gasoline, oil and transmission fluid, it becomes an environmental hazard and should be removed, he said.
Mallory recommended that council consider setting up a property standards committee that would hear appeals from residents who disagree with the bylaw officer’s interpretation of the rules.
Council members will debate the property bylaws again at their committee of the whole meeting in November.