For a small city like Nelson, it’s been a gargantuan task to introduce regulations to two burgeoning industries: cannabis and short-term rentals. But following a hectic week at the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) conference in Vancouver, Mayor Deb Kozak is feeling buoyed by the provincial attention they’ve garnered for their work.
“Nelson is always seen to be on the leading edge of things,” Kozak told the Star, upon her return.
“Last year we sat on a panel around short-term rentals and Airbnb, which is still a hot topic now, and coming back this year we’ve already had our regulations in effect for a year, while other communities haven’t done anything. And it’s the same with our cannabis regulations.”
But, as one constituent put it to her, sometimes it’s hard to be first.
“Sometimes people feel it’s better to let someone else make those mistakes first. That’s not the route we went, because we listened to what the community wanted. We put a tremendous amount of the council and the community’s time into these regulations, and I believe it’s going to eventually pay off.”
Airbnb: ‘The pressure is mounting’
At the end of the day, Kozak is a little sick of talking about cannabis when there are so many other pressing issues facing the city — primarily the province-wide affordable housing crisis, which has manifested itself locally with a zero per cent vacancy rate and an influx of short-term rental properties.
During the conference there were a number of announcements made by Premier John Horgan about new housing funds, which gives her hope, and city manager Kevin Cormack met personally with representatives of Airbnb. They learned repeatedly that other communities are trailing way behind when it comes to introducing bylaws and regulations.
“Kevin Cormack spoke with Airbnb about working with municipalities that have bylaws in place, and recommended that when registering people a simple thing they could do is ask the owner to produce a business license,” she said.
“They were there in full force, it was really quite interesting. Airbnb wants to partner with communities, and the pressure is mounting on them because communities have stated loud and clear we want to preserve neighbourhood integrity and longer-term rentals.”
Now the city has started enforcing its bylaw, fining homes that haven’t purchased a license or ignored warning letters, and they’ve purchased software to keep on top of the situation. There is now an interactive map that shows all the short-term rentals in town, accessible online to anyone.
Kozak credited city employee Alex Thumm with creating the bylaw, and noted he’s returned to the city in another capacity. She called him “a strong member of the team.”
“Some communities have more pressures around affordable housing than others, and ours is definitely one. This was an absolute necessity, and I think it was the right move.”
Kevin Cormack named to cannabis task force
Kozak is on the executive board of UBCM, and serves on two committees — Safe Communities and Healthy Communities. As it turns out, cannabis falls under the purview of both, which is why she was invited to be a featured speaker during the conference and to share Nelson’s progress.
She was thrilled to learn that a new public engagement task force announced by Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth will include Cormack.
“It’s a pretty big deal for Kevin to be named to that task force. They were looking for a cross-representation of people active on this file from small, medium and large communities,” she said.
The minister’s belief, moving forward: “One size doesn’t fit all.”
“It’s really telling, the minister’s statement of one size doesn’t fit all, because he realizes there will have to be different solutions for different communities.
“Some may not want any establishments at all, while some way want lots,” she said.
So what works for Nelson may not work for Coquitlam, or Abbotsford, and that’s what the task force will take into consideration as it works toward implementing the new regulatory system. According to Kozak, Farnworth is willing to engage with municipal governments on the issue.
Kozak is now looking to the government for “clear guidelines on distribution, clear guidelines on age limits, and some clarity on rules around advertising. We’re looking for leadership on that level.”
A hectic week, productive conversations
Over the course of the week Kozak and her councillors met with education minister Rob Fleming, mental health and addictions minister Judy Darcy, housing minister Selina Robertson, health minister Adrian Dix and local MLAs/ministers Katrine Conroy and Michelle Mungall.
She also met with UBCM president Murray Krause to talk about the tech sector.
It was a lot to take in — hitting topics such as aging infrastructure, the potential closing of Trafalgar Middle School and the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.
All in all, Kozak feels heard.
“Because this is a new government and the ministers are still learning about the communities, we found them eager and all the meetings were very positive,” she said.