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The verdict issued by the Ontario Fire Commission on Tuesday is a complex issue and an important debate for agritourism in Ontario. It highlights the difficulties and often the rigidity of policy that townships must uphold, and the lack of discourse between residents who are the heart and soul of a place, and the municipality they live in. My biggest disappointment in this verdict is not the fact that they are required to meet safety requirements, but that the township was unwilling to come to reasonable safety requirements in an open conversation.
I the case of the Wilmot barn they are holding occasional events in their bank barn. Already we run into the first problem, the building code has no provisions or rules when it comes to temporary or occasional uses. You either are or are not a barn, not sometimes a barn and sometimes a gathering hall. So when this grey area needs to be interpreted by the municipality many interpretations can occur. In this case Wilmot township chose to interpret that there is no temporary assembly use of the farm building is permitted. This may or may not be a value held by other municipalities.
The bank barn, when originally constructed was not built under any building or fire codes, but has now been slotted into our current regulations as a farm building. There are certain criteria that you must meet to be considered a farm building, foremost being low human occupancy. When 200 people gather in a building there are risks and the building code is designed to protect the safety of the public. The building code is the law designed to protect us. If we start with that idea, not that it is designed to make us jump through fires hoops it becomes less of a burden. No one is exempt from meeting the minimum code requirements.
However, there was an engineer engaged in this project to assist the Owners through this process of hoop jumping. In the building code there are many paths you can choose to travel and the engineer proposed alternative measures that met the intention of the building code without using prescriptive methods. However most municipalities get very nervous when they are asked to approve alternative measures as they do not want to be liable for damages should these measure fail to protect the public. Nevertheless the alternative measure proposed we designed to satisfy the building code and the fire code (different but related laws). These alternative measure were likely designed to be a reduced cost to the owner, more feasible, and likely more appropriate for the existing building to protect the public. This is where I feel the municipality really let their residents down. They failed to have a discussion on alternative measures that would satisfy them and also the Owner. They forgot that without this Owner and the blood, seat, and equity they put into their barn and their community there would be no reason for the existence of the municipality. Not to mention economic stimulus, increased tourism, and overall community culture.
Verdicts like this and from the building code commission are often used as precedent for future disputes, and unfortunately this is a bad one that could hurt other barn conversions and agritourism similar to this. The owner was more than willing to protect the safety of the public through the alternative measures proposed in the engineering report. The lack of discourse and flexibility in code interpretation shows Wilmot’s lack of support for its community culture. Many municipalities have recently changed planning policy and zoning regulations to make it easier for agritourism to thrive. They have recognized that when their residents succeed they do to.