• Rob Hornberger

Kingsville developers face opposition to proposed Colchester boutique hotel

Residents fear proliferation of short-term rentals

Coun. Steve Bjorkman says the proposed hotel development on the site of the historic Colchester schoolhouse is not appropriate for a residential neighbourhood.

ESSEX — A proposal by two Kingsville businessmen to use the 140-year-old Colchester schoolhouse as the centrepiece of a boutique hotel development has run into opposition from residents who are worried about the preservation of the historic building and the rapid growth of short-term Airbnb rentals in the village.

The $2-million plan proposed by Jim Flynn and Kim Lewis calls for the construction of 14 stand-alone, cottage-style units surrounding a renovated Bagot Street schoolhouse.

The deadline set for purchase of the property was Jan. 31, but Essex council voted to extend the deadline to mid-March to allow alternative proposals.

Although Flynn took pains at a Jan. 18 council meeting to say the stand-alone units would not be Airbnbs, but a managed hotel with on-site staff, the proposal sparked complaints about the glut of existing short-term rentals in the village.

“We have no problem with properly run short-term rentals, it’s the saturation and lack of regulation that is starting to cause problems,” said village resident Lynda Leopold.

The Airbnb website shows more than two dozen listings in the Colchester area.

Leopold, a Sullivan Street resident, said last summer she experienced motorcyclists driving in her yard, lack of privacy, fireworks displays, plus the spent debris from fireworks falling on her roof.

“Put yourself in our shoes,” she said. “Would you want five short-term rentals abutting your dream home?”

Flynn said the 500-square-foot cottages would each have one bedroom, a living room space, a bathroom and no kitchen. They would be managed by his family-run Grove Hotel in Kingsville.

He said the school and cottages would supply luxury rooms for wedding parties, visitors to Point Pelee during the birding season and tourists visiting local wineries in both Essex and Kingsville.

He estimated the hotel would generate at least $1 million a year in business activity at the hotel and surrounding restaurants, stores and wineries.

Flynn was asked by councillors about the short-term rental issue and whether the plan would preserve the historical features of the school house.

“This would be an extension of the Grove Hotel, so not an Airbnb. It would be professionally managed — from reservations, daily housekeeping, property maintenance and services to our guests,” he said.

“For all intents and purposes it’s a hotel but not under one roof.”

Flynn said the renovated school and 14 units would have a similar price structure to the Grove Hotel: $179 to 279 a night during prime season, $150 a night during the off-season, with a minimum two-day stay.

Because the property has historic significance, the school is registered by the town under the Ontario Heritage Act as a “listed” building which gives it some protection against demolition.

Artist renderings, above and below, show the renovated Colchester schoolhouse as the centerpiece of a boutique hotel development with 14 adjoining cabins. The developers estimate the project would generate at least $1 million a year in business activity.

Coun. Joe Garon asked if the Flynn group would agree with the school being “designated” under the act and given an added level of protection against demolition.

Designation would also ensure changes to the interior of the school would preserve its historical features.

“We would not be opposed to that,” Flynn said.

“We would just want to know what does that entail and we would be happy to enter into an agreement and undertaking that the property would be preserved into perpetuity.”

The Essex Municipal Heritage Committee held a public meeting during the week prior to the Jan. 18 council meeting and Laurie Brett, its chair, said a large number of village residents are “clearly very concerned about this heritage asset.”

Brett asked that the sale of the school property be delayed past the Jan. 31 deadline so “other parties” could come up with alternative proposals.

Village resident Perry Basden said this week he will be giving a presentation to council March 16 on alternative uses for the schoolhouse. He said he will be making use of 2012 Colchester Centre Landscape Master Plan that listed various uses for the school, including a recreation centre, a community market and a place for live entertainment

“Does the building have potential? Yes it does,” Basden said.

The school building and property were declared surplus after the Flynn group approached the town about buying it. There were no requests for other proposals.

“How do we fairly put this out to market, that’s what I’m hearing with my phone calls from residents,” Coun. Kim Verbeek told council.

“That concern is that this is not a fair process if we just allow the first bidder … because a bidding war could drive that price up for us and that seems to me a good thing,” said Verbeek.

The purchase price was told to council in camera but not made public.

Prior to the vote on the sale, Coun. Sherry Bondy suggested council take a “pause,” put off a vote on the sale and gather more input from the public.

But two councillors, Steve Bjorkman and Chris Vander Doelen, said the time for talk was over.

“I’m not trying to stand in the way of business, I’m not trying to stand in the way of progress, but I am trying to stand for the people who live in that village,” said Bjorkman.

He said the project is inappropriate for a residential neighbourhood and should be located in a commercially designated section of the village.

Residents have “come to expect a certain amount of privacy, a certain amount of quality of life and they see that leaving,” Bjorkman said.

“We have to save Colchester from itself, because I think there a lot of people who are convinced they are on the right side of a project when they’re going to have this blow up in their faces in a way they don’t expect."

Bjorkman said he received at least 70 emails from residents opposing the project.

Vander Doelen took a pro-business stance and said the project ticked off all the boxes in terms of allaying the concerns of residents.

He said the hotel would diversify the local economy, preserve the school and take away business from unregulated Airbnbs.

“We have to save Colchester from itself, because I think there a lot of people who are convinced they are on the right side of a project when they’re going to have this blow up in their faces in a way they don’t expect because they don’t understand how the development world works and the way the real world works.”

He spoke against delaying the vote until March, a move he felt would kill the proposal.

“We are obligated to consider the best interest of the community and that includes those three things again: diversifying the economy, saving the school and controlling the B&Bs by allowing people an alternative place to stay.”

Council voted to defer its decision on the sale until March, putting Flynn and Lewis’s proposal in doubt.

“We’re going to have to consider what we’ve heard this evening and come back to you,” Flynn said. “So, at this point we don’t know if we will simply withdraw the offer and look to another community that is interested in higher investment.

“Again, we’re disappointed with this outcome.”

Contacted this week, Flynn said council must approve the sale of the property in March for the project to go ahead.

He said there are no thoughts of scaling down the size of the project to make it more acceptable to residents.

“Our proposal stands as it is and it’s now in council’s hands,” Flynn said.

Councillor's comments rile village residents

ESSEX — As a Windsor Star columnist Chris Vander Doelen never shied away from taking stances on issues that would annoy and upset readers

Now a councillor with the Town of Essex, Vander Doelen has taken a position on a development proposal for Colchester that has angered residents in the small lakeshore village.

The $2-million proposal by Kingsville businessmen Jim Flynn and Kim Lewis calls for the renovation of the 140-year-old Colchester school and making the building the centrepiece of hotel that features 14 stand-alone, cottage units.

Opposition to the plan has been strong and council decided last month to defer a decision on selling the town-owned property to the Flynn group from the original Jan. 31 deadline to mid-March — a move Vander Doelen argued against.

“We have to save Colchester from itself, because I think there a lot of people who are convinced they are on the right side of a project when they’re going to have this blow up in their faces in a way they don’t expect because they don’t understand how the development world works and the way the real world works.”

Chris Vander Doelen

He said the deferral will kill the managed hotel proposal and likely lead to the proliferation of more unregulated Airbnbs.

“That’s how it will blow up in our faces.”

The comments drew of flurry of criticism on Facebook.

“Another politically limiting move,” said one commentator. “He will find out what Colchester wants next election. (Condescension) will not be tolerated. Colchester residents do understand how the world works very well.”

Interviewed this week, Vander Doelen made no apologies.

“That’s its own little echo chamber there,” he said of the Facebook comments. “There’s a group on Facebook, if I said good morning they’d hate it so I take what they say with a grain of salt.”

He said the proposal gives the village and town what is recommended in the Essex official plan — a more diversified economy.

“We have to diversify this economy and our options are limited. We’re not going to be landing a big auto plant. We’re not going to be attracting cultural tourists. We’ve got specific things to sell and if this group is blocking it, then yes, we’ve got to save them for themselves because we need to do more with this town.”

Vander Doelen admitted his position on the Flynn proposal could damage him politically. “There are people who’ve told me I’m never going to vote for you, so be it …that’s why I got elected — to do this.

“The gutless fence straddling kind of politician always repelled me when I was a reporter and it’s really hard for me to do that myself. I mean I’m going to have to straddle some issues, but on this one, I think it’s pretty clear cut.”

Editor’s note: Rob Hornberger is a former Windsor Star colleague of Chris Vander Doelen

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