Councillor with Airbnb history didn't recuse himself from vote

·4 min read

A Saint Andrews councillor who recently voted on a new short-term rental bylaw for his town has a history of challenging an Airbnb proposal in his neighbourhood.

But Coun. Guy Groulx says this situation doesn't put him in a conflict of interest position but rather gives him "insight" into the weaknesses of the town's current zoning bylaw, which will allow him to help the town create better planning rules.

"It's hard to be completely separate in everything. And the only thing you can do is act in the best interests of the town," he said.

In 2019, Groulx made a submission to the Southwest New Brunswick Service Commission's Planning Review and Adjustment Committee outlining his objections to a planning application filed by Garth and Marissa Browne.

The Brownes had received the green light from the regional committee to have a unit in their Ernest Street home be used “to provide sleeping accommodation for the travelling public,” according to a planning report.

Judy Hartford, a development officer with the commission, reported to the committee in July 2019 that the Brownes had a “strong case for a variance” to allow for this arrangement. The property was zoned for mixed-use and both single-family dwelling, and tourist homes fit into that usage, she noted.

The variance was granted, but then Groulx appealed the decision to New Brunswick's Assessment and Planning Appeal Board. It ultimately ruled in Groulx's favour and overturned the decision by the planning committee.

Groulx said the case demonstrates that the planning committee didn't let his position as a councillor influence its decision despite his presentations against the variance.

Saint Andrews council recently passed the first reading of its short-term rental bylaw. If implemented, the bylaw will develop a permit system to regulate short-term rentals in the town. It could potentially limit the number of short-term rental permits to three per person.

Groulx voted on that first reading.

Garth Browne declined to comment for this story this week. In a previous interview with the Telegraph-Journal, Browne said the web of zoning bylaws is “scaring away young people from this community.”

“Which is a shame,” he added.

Town clerk Paul Nopper said Saint Andrews' conflict of interest policy falls under the town's procedural bylaw and the Local Governance Act.

A conflict of interest is defined as when a council member could make a personal profit or a financial gain from a decision.

"As staff, I can't make judgment on it... From my personal point of view, and from what I've seen, there is no conflict of interest from Coun. Groulx," Nopper said, noting none of the council members own an Airbnb or any short-term rental.

In the event of a conflict of interest, under the town's procedural bylaw, Saint Andrews council members have to declare any conflict themselves, and if they don't and there is a conflict, then there could be repercussions, such as an RCMP inquiry or investigation.

Groulx said his duty as a councillor is to "promote the adherence and application of zoning bylaws."

"I am not opposed to short-term rentals as they can play an important role in promoting tourism in our community, but a balance must be struck that protects the affordable housing stocks, respects the rights of neighbours and provides a level playing field with existing short-term rental providers," he said in an emailed statement.

Deputy Mayor Brad Henderson said he's recused himself in the past from multiple debates, sometimes even if it's just because of a perceived conflict of interest. Groulx said he has recused himself before too.

"It's a small community," Henderson said. "You certainly have to be more careful, in the fact that everybody knows everybody else, or seems to have a friend or a neighbour or a co-worker that's invested in a particular interest. So you do have to be careful."

- With files from Mike Landry

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L'initiative de journalisme local est financée par le gouvernement du Canada.

Caitlin Dutt, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal