Before City Councillors sit down Monday night to consider new rules for fire pits, I recommend that we should first know who can have a fire pit in Kitchener?
I think that the majority of homeowners are already not allowed to have outdoor fires.
If I can’t have a fire pit, who can?
I can’t and I think I have a half-decent sized backyard.
We’ll keep it simple and look at it as a rectangle with measurements roughly 25 feet wide by 51 1/2 feet deep (or about 7.62 metres x 15.7 metres).
According to the new rules, my firepit would need to be 6 metres from any building, structure, property line, tree, hedge, fence, roadway, overhead wire or other combustible article. My yard is more than 4 metres too narrow. Even under the old 5 metre rule, my yard is considered too narrow for a fire pit.
In my case, we also have phone wires going across the backyard.
But even if my yard was wide enough and we didn’t have the phone lines, I still couldn’t have a fire pit. Why? My neighbours have trees that cross over the property line. And when the city refers to trees (as verified by a drawing shared on Twitter), they do not mean the trunk of the tree. What they mean is the canopy of the tree (or where the branches stop being above the ground). So I couldn’t even start counting my six metres until I cleared the tree.
Now I’ve seen a good number of backyards in Kitchener in both the older and newer areas and I’d suggest that our yard is at least average sized and quite possibly bigger than average.
If the majority can’t have fire pits, we should consider a ban
So if we can’t legally have a fire pit, who can? My guess is that’s it is a small minority of homeowners in Kitchener and has always been a small minority. How many people have a lot that is at least 12 m x 12 m? Or even 10 m x 10m? I’ve even seen yards bigger than ours that would not meet the criteria.
The bylaw, enacted after chimineas and other outdoor fireplaces became fashionable, has created the perception that outdoor fires are allowed in the city but if my hypothesis is correct, the perception is much greater than the reality.
Even if you have a yard where the size and conditions allow you to have a firepit, I suspect it leaves very few options for where the fire pit can be placed. Even in those yards, I doubt that the fire pit is located in that sweet spot since it would normally be right smack dab in the middle of the yard which based on my experience isn’t where you find them.
So if we’re going to have such strict regulations on where fire pits can go, I suggest we’re better off ending the perception that fire pits are allowed and ban them.
Are such strict rules necessary?
When I reflect upon the rules, I wonder if they really need to be so strict. Certainly, they can not be the same rules that Ontario Parks uses to select where it places fire pits on its camp sites. I can’t imagine many of them would qualify especially if they needed to be 5 or 6 metres away from the canopy of a tree.
My preferred option
I lean towards allowing fire pits if they are to be broadly allowed and more than just the perception that they are allowed.
If we go that route, we should have regulations that keep people safe and allow the vast majority of homeowners to have fire pits. I’m not sure what distance that would be but I’d suggest that maybe it should be 3 metres and that for trees that it be from the trunk and from the ground to the bottom of the branches.
Addressing health and enjoyment of property concerns
We would still need to consider the legitimate concerns of people who have health concerns related to outdoor fire places and those who can not enjoy their own yard due to their dislike of their neighbours fire. It seems to me that these are the exception to the rule and should be dealt with as the exception to the rule. If a complaint is made, the first step should be to confirm that the fire pit is legally located and educate the owner on where it can be if it isn’t. If there is no spot or the fire pit is not moved to one, that homeowner should be held accountable for whatever punishment the bylaw includes. I’d suggest that mediation be used to try to find a win-win solution after a second complaint from a legally placed fire pit.
Looking for a compromise solution
If we proceed as I’ve outlined here, I suggest that there’s no need to find a compromise solution such as the need to get a permit for outdoor fires and to limit them to 6 a year as suggested by Councillor Vrbanovic nor to only allow them on Friday and Saturday nights as suggested by Councillor Davey.
I originally didn’t understand how the 6 fire limit could be enforced. Who would be keeping track of the number of fires? But I now see that a permit would need to be obtained for each fire. That’s an improvement since presumably the city would ensure no one could buy more than 6.
But I’m still not sure it’s enforceable. Someone who has trouble with their neighbours fires would still need to keep track of the number of fires. Then when a seventh or eighth fire is held, they’d need to hope that they didn’t sneak in a fire or two without a permit. Essentially, they’d need to be able to prove that their neighbour has had more than 6 fires. I’m sure there are ways to prove the number of fires but not everyone has the technology and/or know how to track the proof. If the bylaw applies to everyone, they really shouldn’t have to have the technology or know how either.
Keep any compromise simple to easy to understand and enforce or you can expect people to blatantly defy it.
So of the compromises I’ve heard, I like Scott Davey’s better. But I’m sure that still will provoke legitimate complaints that need to be addressed.
So rather than searching for a compromise based what I believe is a relatively small number of exceptions, let’s create a bylaw that addresses the majority of homeowners across the city. I’d strongly prefer one that allowed them at most homes and dealt with the exceptions as exceptions. If that’s not possible because it’s not safe enough, I reluctantly suggest they should be banned.