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City of Whitehorse drafts new rules, permit system for empty buildings

A boarded up building at 2098 Second Avenue in Whitehorse. On Tuesday night city councillors had their first look at a new vacant and abandoned buildings bylaw. It's designed to discourage people from leaving buildings empty.  (Gabrielle Plonka/CBC - image credit)
A boarded up building at 2098 Second Avenue in Whitehorse. On Tuesday night city councillors had their first look at a new vacant and abandoned buildings bylaw. It's designed to discourage people from leaving buildings empty. (Gabrielle Plonka/CBC - image credit)

The City of Whitehorse has drafted a series of rules and fees to discourage people from leaving buildings empty.

On Tuesday night, city councillors looked over the proposed new bylaw for vacant and abandoned buildings. 

If it's introduced, the bylaw would make annual permits mandatory for buildings left vacant for more than a month. 

The first year's permit would cost $1,500, and it would go up in price over consecutive years — reaching $8,000 by the fourth year. 

Bylaw Services Manager Ryan Leef told councillors there would be exemptions for buildings being repaired, sold, leased, or seasonally occupied, or vacated due to catastrophic events, long-term illness or death.

Owners of vacant buildings would also need to make sure they're secure and well-maintained.

They'd need to comply with city rules for snow and ice removal, keep a working fire protection system and maintain liability insurance.

They may also have to allow for maintenance inspections — inside and outside the building — every 90 days. 

Leef told councillors there were empty buildings downtown that were a "continued source of compliance monitoring, monitoring and enforcement action related to unlawful access, fire concerns and proliferation of graffiti."

"Vacant and abandoned buildings in Whitehorse pose hazards and detract from the city's aesthetics, hindering economic growth and causing concern among residents due to safety issues, unsightly conditions and vandalism."

Leef also said there were more than a dozen buildings within the city limits that would meet the proposed definition of "vacant" or "abandoned." 

The council had been trying to increase development in downtown Whitehorse, he noted.  

"Due to increasing pressures for residential and commercial space in the city, there is a strong interest to incentivize owners to increase development activity in key locations."

Not all councillors in support 

Not all councillors were immediately sold on the bylaw.

Some had questions around how it would be policed, under what circumstances bylaw officers could enter a vacant building, and whether the permit fees would be large enough to spur owners into redeveloping or repurposing their buildings. 

Coun. Dan Boyd felt it could be too "aggressive" and "penalising."

He said the council had record of a few prominent abandoned buildings, and he'd like to hear what the owners think about the proposals. 

"This is, I think, going to be a shock to any owner of a vacant building," he said.

Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott speaks during an interview with CBC. She supports the idea of new rules for vacant buildings. "These derelict buildings really are an obstacle for so much in our downtown," she said.
Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott speaks during an interview with CBC. She supports the idea of new rules for vacant buildings. "These derelict buildings really are an obstacle for so much in our downtown," she said.

Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott speaks during an interview with CBC. She supports the idea of new rules for vacant buildings. "These derelict buildings really are an obstacle for so much in our downtown," she said. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Mayor Laura Cabott was largely in support of the idea.

She said the new measures were a long time in the making.  

"I'm pleased to see that we are actually moving ahead on dealing with so many of our vacant and abandoned buildings here in Whitehorse. I think that you're gonna have a fair bit of support from the public on this," she said.

"This has been top of mind for many of us. We've we've asked for it, councils asked for this, the community has asked for it. These derelict buildings really are an obstacle for so much in our downtown."

City councillors will continue to debate the bylaw next week, before it goes to a first vote.