Council Member Frank Soda looked out at the nearly full Niagara Falls City Council chambers Wednesday night and posed a question.
Drawing on his years as a history and government teacher in the Falls’ schools, he asked the crowd if it was right to expect that any legislative body at any level of government should have to achieve a unanimous vote to pass a piece of legislation.
“Can you imagine a unanimous vote in the county legislature?” he asked.
Pushing further, he said, “You see the Congress. Can you imagine a unanimous vote there?”
Laughter rippled through the crowd. Soda smiled.
He said he was trying to explain why he had introduced a resolution to amend the city’s zoning code to repeal a requirement that mandates that amendments to the ordinance not approved by the city Planning Board can only be adopted only by a unanimous vote of the City Council.
“My main concern, while I value the role of the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, they are advisory. They don’t exist to create legislation,” Soda said. “(The requirement for a unanimous vote) is exceedingly restrictive. It is a serious usurpation (of the City Council’s authority).”
The requirement, tucked away in an obscure section (Section 1302.4.2 (D)) of the city’s voluminous zoning code became a flash point in September when the council failed to approve amendments to the ordinance, proposed by Mayor Robert Restaino, that would have changed the way the city regulates short-term and other transient rental properties (STRs).
While a 4-1 majority of the council agreed to approve the new STR ordinance, the measure failed because a unanimous council vote was required to overrule an earlier decision by the city’s Planning Board, which had rejected the changes.
Council Member William Kennedy cast the negative and deciding vote on the ordinance amendments which had been vigorously opposed by a large number of short-term rental unit owners and operators and the association that represents them.
Kennedy opposed Soda’s resolution Wednesday, questioning the timing of the proposal code change.
Council members, at a special meeting on June 2, imposed a moratorium on new STR operating permits, saying they are preparing to try again to change the city’s zoning requirements for transient rentals. The as yet unfinished new STR ordinance is expected to closely resemble the one that failed in September because of the requirement for a unanimous council vote.
Soda’s resolution noted that the city council is the “legislative” and “appropriating” body for the city and that it, alone, has the power to enact, amend or rescind local laws, ordinances and codes.
The council adopted Soda’s resolution by a vote of 3 to 1. The panel will now hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. June 23, to consider an amendment that will modify the city’s zoning ordinance to abolish the mandate for unanimous approval by the City Council of amendments to the code that have not been approved by the Planning Board.
The mandate would be replaced by a provision for “three-fourths majority approval of the City Council” for amendments to the code that have not been approved by the Planning Board. That would mean 4 votes would be required for council approval.
In September, the city estimated that there are between 275 and 300 short-term rental properties in the city and that no more than 100 were in compliance with the current city ordinance governing short-term rentals. Since then, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals has approved at least 92 new STR permits.