15 Mount Allison University students have to move by Feb. 13 because their apartment building was not zoned to be used as apartments.
The town of Sackville brought the matter to civil court because it claims the building owner had committed a zoning infraction and was doing work to the former mansion without the proper permit.
Justice Darrell Stephenson presided over the proceedings in Moncton on Friday by phone.
He said he doesn't take the matter lightly, considering that the province is in the red phase of COVID restrictions and the students have just started the winter semester.
"I'm not going to let any of the students fall through the cracks on this," said Stephenson via teleconference.
The matter was before the court last Friday as well, but was adjourned because Stephenson requested that a walk through be performed to determine if there were any safety issues.
The lawyer representing the town of Sackville, Christopher Stewart said a number of problems were found, and "there appears to be no livable units without a safety issue."
Stewart said some windows were too small to be considered a fire exit, others were too high to reach without a chair. One new window in the basement was deemed large enough, but it opened into a window well, not meeting building codes.
Hearing of the problems, Justice Stephenson said the students needed to be notified that they must leave the building by mid-February with their moving expenses covered by the landlords, Barbara and Gordon Beal.
At the first hearing, the Beals, including their daughter and property manager, Kathy Beal, were asked to find vacant apartments for their tenants to move into.
Their lawyer, Ted Ehrhardt told the court that 13 spaces in apartments were secured, and Mount Allison University had dorm rooms available as well.
He said that three students had already found new apartments.
Stephenson said if the new accommodations cost more to rent, the Beal family would be responsible for covering the difference for three months.
"Let's get those students out as soon as we can," said Stephenson.
According to Kathy Beal, fifteen students live in the apartments on the second and third floor of the Georgian mansion at 131 Main Street. The bottom floor of the house, which sits across from the Mount Allison swan pond, was rented out as office space.
She said, as many of businesses that rented space in the house started to move out in the spring because of COVID, her 86-year-old father wondered how he could generate enough income to pay the taxes. He started adding two new kitchens to make room for more students.
Beal said her father comes from a different time, "he thinks he can do whatever he wants because its his property."
A complaint was made, and Beal said the town became involved via the Southeast Regional Service Commission.
Lori Bickford is the planning manager, her office administers building permits and enforces zoning bylaws. She said the issues at the heart of the matter is that alterations were being done to the building without a permit, and the building housed apartments even though the current zoning, residential historic commercial, doesn't allow that.
"On my end, it's relatively simple, it's just not allowed under the bylaw," said Bickford.
Tenants for a decade
According to Beal, there have been student tenants in the building for ten years. But when she became aware of the fire safety problems, she said she replaced some windows and added fire extinguishers.
She thought she'd done enough to allow the students to finish the school year in the apartments, but, "the week before Christmas I got an order from (Bickford)."
"I thought, 'there's been students in there for ten years, what's another few months'," said Beal.
Though she wishes the students could stay for their sake, she accepts Stephenson's decision.
"There's a lot of other places that have students that are a lot worse,"said Beal.
As for the future of the building, Beal isn't sure what comes next. It's listed on Canadian Register of Historic Places as the Joseph F. Allison House, built in 1841. It was most recently called the Fawcett Professional Centre.
"My Dad wanted a demolition permit to knock it down," said Beal. But she said selling it is another possibility.
In 2014, the Beal family requested that a section of land at the back of the lot be rezoned to make way for an apartment development. Sackville town council denied the request twice.
Vacancies hard to come by
Jonathan Ferguson, president of Mount Allison's student Union, said several students have reached out for help. A similar situation cropped up when a fire broke out in Sackville's downtown in the fall of 2020 and approximately the same number of students had to find new homes.
"This is a very difficult time of year for students to find out that they have two weeks … notice to find new accommodations in a relatively small town that's near capacity," said Ferguson.
Classes started virtually at Mount Allison on Monday and are scheduled to happen in person next week.
Sackville's chief administrative officer, Jamie Burke, said "usually when people receive a notice to comply, typically the property is brought into compliance," said Burke.
The town issued its first notice to the Beals in August, 2020, with the town council passing a motion to begin court proceedings in October.
"This is a last resort obviously, it's not something that we like to do or want to do, but we really don't have any other choice in this case," said Burke.
The Beal's lawyer, working with the town of Sackville's lawyer. is in the process of drawing up a letter that will go to the affected students by Jan. 29. They'll be offered one of the vacancies found by the university and the landlords.
Justice Stephenson said he wanted them safely out of the building before he will deal with the bylaw infraction.
"I want to make sure they're looked after," said Stephenson.
The matter will be back before the court on Feb. 17.