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Nov. 25, 2020 | Wednesday
Local News
Opinion: Trouble in paradise: Chautauqua needs strong voice to advocate for change
A Ryerson Park sunset. In the summer, the sunset attracts flocks of people, who often park illegally. (File/Richard Harley)

Victor Tarnoy
Special to The Lake Report

“Most people will agree that Niagara-on-the-Lake is an enviable place to live. Those of us who are lucky to live in Chautauqua, our historic neighbourhood of narrow streets, tall trees and dense residential development, will argue that this is the best place to live in NOTL. The unique radial plan of streets and blocks with building lots as small as 50 x 37 feet encouraged a myriad of house sizes and styles, with each property having its own unique aspects. Giant oaks, maples and black walnut trees shade the streets and properties. The houses, (many circa 19th century) are built cheek-by-jowl, close to the street, promoting a residential lifestyle not equalled elsewhere. Ryerson Park has the best sunsets and a beach that residents have used since 1888 ...”

I wrote this for the St. Catharines Standard in 2005, before the images of our sunsets, our beach and the unique environment of the neighbourhood spread on social media, before we lost 20 per cent of our trees, before the proximity to the Old Town had become a liability as convoys of exotic cars and motorcycles used our streets to parade into and out of town.

Airbnbs have replaced over 10 per cent of family homes, eclipsing the few legitimate B&Bs (where the owners still live on the property and are part of the neighbourhood). Visitors arrive at Ryerson Park to pitch tents and spend the day playing games and cooking. But since there are no public facilities, the bushes and the lake are used instead.

Every weekend and at every sunset during the summer our streets near the lake become parking lots. Believe me, you can’t park many cars on a 13-foot wide street before it’s impassable and unsafe.

There has been a growing awareness that we need something more specific than the existing bylaws, as our neighbourhood faces new developmental and tourism pressures.

Fortunately, Chautauqua has what few neighbourhoods have: its own plan designation and a residents association (est. 1952). Representatives of a residents association are able to advocate for their neighbourhood when important issues arise and can lobby the municipality for neighbourhood-specific bylaws and development guidelines.

Residents associations are formed in response to developmental pressures and the failure of local bylaws to address the specific issues that every neighbourhood has. Associations can result in safer and healthier places to live and visit, bringing neighbours together with shared purpose to enhance the unique characteristics of a place.

There is no doubt that if ever Chautauqua needed an advocate such as the Chautauqua Residents Association (CRA), it was then and it is even moreso now.

However, the incumbent board of directors has been reluctant to advocate for issues affecting the neighbourhood. Traditionally, they organized our wonderful annual neighbourhood social events but maintained a hands-off approach to issues involving development and tourism.

The summer of 2020 pushed us into a crisis situation as the pandemic lockdown relaxed and Ryerson Park was one of the few beaches that was not restricted to locals only. This news quickly spread on social media and visitors and the associated burdens increased exponentially.

It’s not surprising that at the recent annual general meeting, the membership expressed an increased interest in the CRA getting involved and advocating for the neighbourhood. Three new directors were added to the board, with full approval and support of the membership. For a brief moment we shared a new optimism for Chautauqua.

Unfortunately, during lengthy and disorganized arguments, including the attempted dismissal of the new directors, the CRA board ceased to function. The energy to advocate for the neighbourhood had been turned into an embarrassing struggle between neighbours.

As a result, on Oct. 19, the five directors who support an advocacy role for the association resigned. The future path of the CRA is now unclear.

Without a residents association advocating for Chautauqua, future development will be determined by developers and social media. Without the CRA’s involvement, it will be next to impossible to introduce limits for homes being converted to seasonal rentals, implement parking restrictions and reduce speed limits on our avenues. Without the CRA working with the town to manage tourism, our neighbourhood will continue to be compromised.

If our residents association remains only a social committee, then development without restrictions will continue to affect the character of the neighbourhood. It is time that all the concerned residents of Chautauqua get involved with their residents association and elect a new board of directors that will advocate for sustainable development in Chautauqua.

When we work together with a common purpose, we can make a difference.

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