City moving toward fines for construction on public property without permit

Marathon debate during July 17 meeting topped by several votes

The City of Wetaskiwin is moving toward a bylaw that allows fines for builders who don’t acquire the proper permitting when occupying city property. The issue was discussed at length during the July 17 regular meeting of city council.

The issue was presented to councilors by Lisa Novotny, manager of Engineering and Development, with a detailed agenda item titled Bylaw 1884-17 – Amendment to Development, Safety Codes and Engineering Fee Bylaw, which had two distinct parts.

Novotny’s memo noted “fees are currently not being charged for when the city provides assistance for road closures to offset the operational impact; As well, there are currently no fines for individuals who do not obtain an on-street construction permit prior to accessing city property.”

Novotny, city manager Dave Burgess and Sue Howard, director of Engineering and Development all stated several times during the meeting the proposed bylaw added fines only, and that the rules for road closures and construction activity on public property already existed.

“In 2015, Bylaw 1858-15 was approved by Council and established the fees for development, safety codes inspections, and engineering fees,” stated Novotny’s memo.

“Currently Public Works crews are providing this service for free. However, it can often require significant time and resources. As well, this is a service provided by for-profit agencies that are significantly higher that the proposed rate of $250. The proposed rate would cover the operational cost.

“All homeowners and contractors are required to obtain an access to city property/on street construction permit if they want to do work on city property. This permit is free but allows Administration to not only know what is happening around the city but is an avenue to know who to contact if there is damage to city infrastructure. As a motivator to encourage contractors and homeowners to obtain the permit a fine of $600 for the first offence and $1,000 for each subsequent is being suggested to Council for consideration.”

The fact the bylaw already existed and was approved by council didn’t stop councilors from debating the principles behind it.

Novotny noted during her presentation that not everyone knows that such permits are required.

Councilor Wayne Nielson stated he wasn’t sure he understood the “access to city property” permit.

Novotny stated that, for example, a contractor may be doing work that involves moving or storing material on sidewalks or roads, and the city wants to ensure taxpayer property is returned to its original condition and that design standards are followed.

She noted the permit ensures all city departments are aware of road closures and work that may be occurring on city property. Novotny stated the existing permit also applies to homeowners who may, for example, have a yard of gravel delivered to their home and dumped on the street or sidewalk. The proposed fines, if no permit had been acquired, would also apply to those homeowners.

Councilor Tyler Gandam asked, in those situations, if the city starts with an “education first” policy, rather than fines right off the bat, to which Novotny answered, “Yes.”

Councilor Joe Branco stated he was concerned that if a contractor is already contracted to the city, getting this permit is more red tape for them to deal with.

Novotny answered the permit is only one page and wasn’t considered a lot of work to fill out and having the contractor signature on the permit shows the contractor knows the city’s standards and will follow them.

Branco responded that a tender contract already does that.

Novotny returned that the policy and proposed fines apply to everyone, not just contractors who’ve signed a tender with the city.

Councilor Patricia MacQuarrie asked if fines are at the discretion of the bylaw officers. She used as an example a homeowner who’s pouring concrete on the weekend and then becomes aware he or she requires a permit. Novotny stated there is room for the bylaw officers to use discretion.

Nielson stated he agreed with one part of the proposal, and disagreed with another. “They’re two very different items,” he said.

MacQuarrie said she felt that road closures for community events should not be included in the same policy that covers contractors and homeowners.

Branco said he saw the policy as negatively affecting homeowners who are building a fence or a doghouse and requiring them to get a permit. Novotny answered that the proposed fines applied to things like gravel being dumped on city sidewalks or roads without a permit, and that such permit bylaws are very common. She also stated the permit bylaw was already law in Wetaskiwin; the proposal only involved adding fines for violators.

At this point, it seemed most or all councilors were in favour of MacQuarrie’s idea to exclude events from the bylaw and staff suggested voting on First reading, then include an amendment that excluded events from said bylaw.

Nielson said he felt including homeowners in the contractors section of the bylaw was too onerous, as residents doing weekend work won’t be able to call city hall for a permit anyway. He also stated requiring contractors to fill out another page of information was a waste of time if the contractor had already signed contracts to work in the city.

Councilor Branco made a motion to table the proposed bylaw, but it was defeated.

Howard then spoke up, saying the road closure part of the proposed bylaw came about after a local business suffered wind damage, then requested to close a public street while repairs were made. The street closure included a request for city staff to deliver barricades at 6 a.m. “So that’s what spurred this whole thing,” said Howard.

Mayor Bill Elliot said he didn’t have a problem with the fines as this seemed very similar to how the city handles false fire alarms: education, warnings then fines.

Councilor Bert Horvey, MacQuarrie and Gandam agreed first offenses should be warning only; fines should start only on the second offense. “Education first before we start issuing fines,” stated Gandam.

Horvey said, “I agree with him.”

Councilors passed First reading with Branco opposed, then passed the amendment, but a proposed bylaw can only be passed on its first appearance if council votes unanimously; Branco voted against, so the bylaw is tabled until the next regular meeting of council.

stu.salkeld@pipestoneflyer.ca