Do you long to be a petty tyrant? Does harassing and bullying your neighbours appeal to you? Then the Smiths Falls Property Standards Committee may have an opening for you!
To make a long story short, a Smiths Falls family who have spent the past couple of years transforming their property into a naturalized garden have been subjected to quasi-legal harassment because the town’s outdated property standards bylaw has provided an opening for neighbours who don’t like the look of their yard.
Beth and Craig Sinclair, owners of the home on St. Lawrence Street, told the Hometown News a few weeks ago that bylaw enforcement officers have come to their property on eight to 10 occasions within a year-and-a-half to complain about such earth-shaking matters as landscaping located too close the curb. Apparently decaying birch logs placed here and there to act as habitat for butterflies and birds are also triggering for the local Karens.
The town’s bylaw is no longer in compliance with settled provincial law because previous court cases in Toronto have upheld homeowners’ right to create naturalized gardens. Moreover, the bylaw is complaint-driven, which is a recipe for arbitrary enforcement. That’s right. If your neighbours think you shouldn’t have birch logs lying in your yard, the full weight of the law can descend on you as if you were running a house of ill repute, or a meth lab.
These “visits” by enforcement officers culminated in a written order issued Nov. 10 making a number of petty demands, including “remove all decayed logs classified as waste.”
The Sinclairs decided enough was enough, and chose to appeal the order rather than complying with it. This led to the Property Standards hearing held on Jan. 25. Incidentally, the neighbours who complained have never spoken directly to the Sinclairs about their concerns, and remain anonymous. At the hearing the Sinclairs were advised that the exact number of times these individuals have complained is, for some reason, “classified information.” Sounds fair to me.
I challenge anyone to go to the Town’s Facebook page and watch the video of the hearing. Decide for yourself if what you see meets the standard of due process.
Having been an observer of local politics in multiple jurisdictions for decades, I am aware of the mindset typically found on municipal committees, and suspected that the Sinclairs had a less than even chance of a favourable ruling. Even so, the town has openly acknowledged that their bylaw is out of date and is going to be rewritten to permit naturalized gardens. As well, the Sinclairs brought in three expert witnesses: Lorraine Johnson, who has been writing about naturalized gardens and the need for individual action on climate change since 1990; Joyce Hostyn, a master gardener whose priorities include encouraging people to create habitat for pollinators; and Nina-Marie Lister, a professor of urban planning at Ryerson University, who was accompanied by her legal counsel, David Donnelly. Among the points these witnesses persuasively argued was that the town’s bylaw as written is illegal and unconstitutional given settled case law in Ontario.
Unfortunately, the committee’s first order of business was to select a chairman for the hearing from among its four members. They appointed a local worthy by the name of Dave Thomas, and things quickly went downhill after that. The hearing unfolded like a cross between the trial of the Chicago Seven and the Trump-Biden presidential debate.
During the course of this relatively brief (two-and-a-half hour) hearing, this upstanding pillar of our community:
- Interrupted Lorraine Johnson after about five minutes and accused her of taking ”half an hour” to make a point. He stated that if people spoke for too long they would lose the committee’s attention. (Perhaps if you can’t focus for a couple of hours, you shouldn’t be presiding over a legal hearing.) This time-urgency didn’t stop Mr. Thomas from offering his personal opinions about aphids and carpenter ants, and how to grow roses.
- Refused to allow legal counsel David Donnelly to speak on the grounds that he wouldn’t take an oath, despite the lawyer explaining that he wasn’t there to give testimony, only legal opinions. Mr. Thomas actually ordered clerk Kerry Costello to mute Mr. Donnelly. (Mr. Donnelly did manage to say “something very wrong is happening here” before he was permanently cut off.)
- Bullied and interrupted the other members of the committee.
- Misunderstood basic facts about the evidence that was being presented.
- Stated in advance that the committee’s decision would be based solely on the current wording of the town’s (vague and arbitrary) bylaw.
- Demonstrated clear bias against the Sinclairs.
- Flippantly declared that if the Sinclairs used chicken wire to enclose their composter (this is the sort of issue local tax money is being spent to deal with) it was “their problem” if the composter didn’t work.
- Argued about gardening with a certified Ontario Master Gardener.
- Let his personal opinions pervade the entire hearing.
- Interrupted other members as they were in the process of making motions to be voted on.
- Pushed the members into voting on the spot, when it was clear some of them wanted time to think it over. (Why didn’t they insist? I don’t know.)
If this is due process, I would hate to see someone being railroaded.
One more example of the intellectual firepower on display during this hearing: A propos of nothing in particular, the chairman opined that the decaying birch logs on the Sinclair property could be a safety hazard because “kids cutting through on their way to school could trip over them.” This fatuous argument is rendered more ridiculous by a couple of basic facts: The Sinclairs’ home is located on a corner with easily accessible entrances to the school property on both sides of it, and secondly, T.R. Leger is an alternative high school, and the majority of the students are in their late teens. Some of the rest are middle aged.
The other members of the committee, Louis Daigle, Ken Shirley and David Arris, joined Mr. Thomas in choosing to ignore one glaringly important truth: bylaw enforcement’s case against the Sinclairs was too weak to withstand serious scrutiny.
Speaking on behalf of bylaw enforcement was recently-appointed officer Paul Klassen, a nice man whose 32 years of service as a town police officer is certainly worthy of respect. However, the bylaw officers who actually investigated the original complaints were not available to give evidence. In any real court of law, that alone would be enough for the charges to be dismissed.
The committee could have, and should have, thrown out the charges with a clear conscience. Instead, they chose to treat a vaguely-worded, outdated and arbitrary bylaw as if it were written on tablets given by God to Moses. At the very least, they could have deferred their ruling until the town rewrote the bylaw to comply with current law.
If a real hearing with actual ground rules is out of the question, the least the Sinclairs and their witnesses are owed is an official apology for the shabby treatment they have received. If the Town won’t do it, then I will. Craig and Beth, I’m sorry. Smiths Falls is better than this.
The opinions stated in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Hometown News’ management, staff or writers.Hometown News