Business, tourism groups call for preservation of Chester’s commercial space


Property owners will hear from their civic government about a proposal from tourism and business officials that, if authorized, would prevent vacant ground-floor spaces in the Chester Village Commercial Zone from being used for residential purposes.

The Village of Chester Tourism and Development Association (VOCTADA), and the Chester Merchants Association want business use preserved, and asked the Municipality of Chester (MOC) to change planning rules so commercial use is required on ground floors within the subject zone.

During a recent council meeting, civid politicians learned there is concern landlords could decide to rent the spaces for residential use instead. Current MOC rules in the zone, however, permit property owners to rent for residential purposes as long as some commercial use is maintained within the building.

"There is already a distinct lack of commercial spaces available in the heart of Chester village, and the current economic climate is such that existing commercial landlords may be tempted to place residential tenants if currently no commercial tenants are forthcoming," Nicola Boyd of the merchant's association, and Suzi Fraser of VOCTADA, said in written correspondence to the municipality.

Both organizations warned any cut in existing or future commercial space in the village could have potentially catastrophic impacts on the business sector.

"We also are facing a current residential real estate boom as the advent of COVID-19 is driving more people out of cities and Chester is clearly a highly desirable residential location in the wake of this pandemic," Boyd and Fraser said.

"The economic factors related to this will be even more enticing to current commercial property owners to possibly sell or rent their spaces for residential purposes."

The MOC is in the midst of a planning review that will finish in two years, but a report to council by MOC's economic development officer, Erin Lowe, suggested "the urgent nature of the request in light of COVID-19 lends support to undertaking the [requested] amendment now."

"Some merchants have indicated that their business's survival is at stake and they cannot wait for the plan review to be completed in 2022 – issuing this amendment now would have it in place in four to six months."

Losing commercial ground floor space to residential use would make it more difficult to attract visitors and new businesses to the Chester Village Central Commercial zone, Lowe's report reads.

Council directed staff to check with property owners within the affected zone and report back before the matter is referred to the village's planning advisory committee.

Some councillors were split on the proposed change.

Allen Webber, MOC's warden, said the request "seems relatively reasonable," while Councillor André Veinotte was hesitant, mentioning the potential financial affect on landlords.

"These are folks who are trying to keep the lights on, and I feel like taking this away from them in a time of need ... I'm leery of [a change] at this point."

Mahone Bay has a stipulation in its Harbourfront Commercial Zone requiring commercial use in half of a ground floor area of a structure, Lowe's report reads. The town also has regulations stating at least half of the Main Street frontage of a building must be commercially occupied.

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