Tourists who booked cheap accommodation in Tofino this month might have to cancel their trips.
Tofino Travellers Guesthouse has been stripped of its business licence and won’t get it back until owner Nick Jacquet proves he can conform to local bylaws and regulations.
A special meeting was held on Aug. 22 where Tofino’s council approved a request from district staff to suspend the guesthouse’s operations due to repeatedly running overcapacity.
The Bed and Breakfast is only licensed for six guests but has been running well over that with as many as 22 staying at one time, according to Tofino’s bylaw officer Flynn Scott.
Guesthouse owner Nick Jacquet admitted to operating over his six-guest threshold but said the building had served as a hostel through various owners for roughly 25 years. He asked council to postpone the Aug. 22 hearing until the winter because, he said, the guesthouse is fully booked into the fall and taking away his licence now would leave many tourists without a place to stay.
“From a business perspective, we’re good for Tofino. We charge $20 a night for people to sleep in a bunk bed,” he said.
“If you were to shut me down, I’m going to receive harm. The guests are going to receive harm. I’ve got bookings all the way up to November,” Jacquet said.
His request for an adjournment found a sympathetic ear in Coun. Greg Blanchette.
“I must admit that the timing of this whole thing is very unfortunate, this being the peak part of the year,” Blanchette said. “There are a number of people coming to town who are expecting to stay at the Tofino Travellers Guesthouse and I’d just like to put them on the table; their vacations are contingent of the business being there.”
District CAO Bob MacPherson argued against any delay.
“It’s been significantly difficult to gain access to this property to conduct any kind of inspection and it’s the view of staff that, if there were to be an adjournment, that difficulty would continue and we wouldn’t be able to determine compliance with our bylaws,” MacPherson said. “Our principle concerns are overcrowding and the safety concerns that come from that.”
Council voted to move ahead with the hearing with Blanchette the only vote in opposition.
Scott said the district has received nine formal complaints about the guesthouse since May 2012, though he noted three of these came from competing businesses operating nearby.
Along with running well over its allowed capacity, Scott suggested the guesthouse is operating five guest rooms instead of the three its business licence allows. He said business owners must renew their licenses every year and Jacquet has, since 2011, consistently declared by signature that he is operating with three guest rooms.
He said he conducted an inspection of the property on May 21, after an obtaining a court order that Jacquet had demanded before allowing him on the property, and confirmed 15 guests were staying at the guesthouse at that time with five guest rooms in operation.
Jacquet later argued the guests staying that day were not in fact paid guests and that Scott had not confirmed they were.
Scott said Jacquet also failed to apply for building permits before building a staircase, bathroom and roof overhang several years ago.
Jacquet said he recently applied for building permits—MacPherson confirmed the permit applications were received on on Aug 19 just prior to the hearing— but suggested they were unnecessary as the stairs were replaced not added, the overhang was minor and the bathroom plumbing already existed.
Jacquet added the district knew about these projects when they were done in 2014, yet he received business licenses for 2015 and 2016.
“Why is it all of sudden now an issue,” he asked. “You gave us a business license this year. That means everything prior to that must be nothing. All those little issues they bring up must mean nothing.”
Tofino fire chief Brent Baker said he inspected the property on Aug. 6 and observed limited access to the side and rear of the building, excessive storage of combustible materials and poorly marked exits.
“Mr Jacquet has developed a pattern of non-compliance regarding occupant load and very basic fire safety regulations,” Baker said. “Evidence collected over the last three years would indicate that life safety is not a priority for Mr. Jacquet and his business operations.”
Jacquet said he had voluntarily requested the fire inspection and had addressed Baker’s concerns since it occurred but was told it would take at least three weeks for a follow up inspection.
Mayor Josie Osborne asked why Jacquet was given a business licence for 2016 despite his bylaw and permit troubles.
CAO Bob MacPherson said he was not sure of the specific reason but speculated that it was “perhaps an attempt by then [bylaw] officer [Robert] Letts to spell out what’s allowed and hope that that’s what occurs on the property.”
Jacquet pointed to the fact that he had received business licences every year since taking over the property in 2011, along with his belief that it had operated as a hostel for many years prior, and said he had been guided by legal counsel who assured him his business fell within legal non-conformance.
“We all know that the guesthouse has been running like this for 25 years,” he said.
Coun. Al Anderson said that argument didn’t work.
“My understanding of what you call grandfathering, legal non conforming, is that that use had to be legal in the first place. So, whether it operated for 100 years with that number of guests it doesn’t matter; if that use wasn’t permitted then either it doesn’t get to continue,” Anderson said.
Coun. Duncan McMaster asked why Jacquet had repeatedly signed his business licence renewals claiming three rooms rather than admitting to using five and Jacquet responded that district staff had suggested he do that because he would be unable to get a licence for four rooms or more.
“You’re prepared to sign something like that; basically telling a lie,” McMaster asked.
“Is it a lie when we all know what’s going on,” Jacquet countered.
Jacquet said he had applied to rezone his property in an effort to bring his guesthouse inline with the district’s regulations but had difficulty dealing with district staff.
“Honestly they’re incompetent and I say that respectfully…They make mistakes and they make mistakes on a regular basis,” he said.
“It’s almost like back at high school working with bullies. They produce reports and stuff that are just so inaccurate and, honestly, to this point I really believe in some respect we’d be better off to go in front of a judge so that he can see and he can question the staff.”
MacPherson said staff does not believe the property falls under any legal non-conforming umbrella but that, even if it did, the license should be suspended regardless.
“Even in the absence of that, there’s ample reason to suspend this business license,” he said.
Blanchette said the district’s issues with the guesthouse should have been addressed before business licenses were dished out.
“This seems to be an object lesson in the perils of letting small things slide year after year and I for one, and I hope staff will as well, take it as a lesson that glossing things over is not going to make it better year after year,” he said.
“I am uneasy about the fact that the business licenses have been issued, which is, in one light, condoning the activity whether it complies with the zoning or not…I feel a bit compromised because we’ve allowed that non-conforming state to continue for years albeit with very specific warnings, so it was kind of a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ over the years. I think we have to put a stop to that otherwise it will continue on and on and on and there will be no way out of it.”
Coun. Ray Thorogood said that by Jacquet’s own admission the license should be suspended.
“Today we hear direct information from Mr. Jacquet that he is operating more than three rooms and he is accepting more than six guests, sometimes up to 22. I don’t know what’s driving that, whether it’s greed or ignorance or just wanting to throw it back in the district’s face,” he said.
Osborne said the district needs to start enforcing its bylaws for businesses to take them seriously.
“There’s a pattern here that demonstrates, at best, a lack of understanding of the district’s bylaws and policies but, at worst, a lack of respect for the need of those bylaws and policies,” she said. “It’s important for the district to take action and part of that is a bit of a message to the business community about the seriousness of our bylaws and our policies.”
Council unanimously approved suspending Jacquet’s business licence until he proves able to conform with his business license and district bylaws. The earliest his license can be reinstated is Oct. 15.