City Council votes down open-door air conditioning by-law, opts for education and outreach instead 

Members of Kingston City Council debate a proposed open-door air conditioning by-law on Tuesday night. Screen captured photo.

At its meeting on the night of Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2022, members of Kingston City Council voted against a controversial by-law which would have prohibited business owners from leaving doors and windows open while air conditioning is running. Instead, Council chose to adopt a public awareness campaign, with members of the business community encouraged to find additional ways to cut emissions. 

The controversial proposal was brought forward once again last night after years of debate and public consultation, as Council searches for policies that align with its goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the city. In August of 2019, Council passed a motion asking staff to prepare an Open-Door Air Conditioning By-Law, which was to be passed the following year, in alignment with the City’s sustainability goals and its recent declaration of a climate emergency. The by-law was meant to stop businesses from leaving doors and windows open while air conditioning is running, all in an attempt to curb excess emissions in the summer months.

The by-law was deferred throughout the pandemic, as the City re-engaged in public consultations this past spring. According to a report presented to Council on Tuesday, “between April 26 and May 3, 2022, staff received twenty-eight responses to the draft by-law. The majority of the respondents did not support the proposed by-law, stating that education and awareness may be better suited in addressing the issue.” 

Following the public consultation phase, City staff prepared two options for Council: approve the draft by-law prepared by staff, or shift to an educational approach, as staff work with the business community to find ways to implement the City’s climate leadership plan. 

The report’s first option would have had Council “approve a by-law for the purpose of prohibiting open doors and windows in retail business establishments while air conditioning systems are in operation.” If approved, the by-law would have taken effect on Sep. 1, 2022. Exemptions were to include businesses with garage-style doors and windows, as well as doors that allow for “direct service of food or beverages.”

In terms of enforcement, the by-law option would have seen individuals charged up to $15,000 for offences; meanwhile, corporations in violation of the by-law could have been subjected to fines of up to $100,000. 

The second option directed City staff “to develop and implement a public awareness and business outreach campaign to encourage retail business establishments to close their doors and windows while air conditioning systems are operational.” Instead of imposing an official by-law, staff would be directed to educate business owners and work with them on ways to undertake additional climate action. 

Council also debated an amendment to the second option, which would have kept the draft by-law as potential action for future councils, “if necessary.” Members of Council voted 7-6 in opposition to that amendment, shelving the open-door air conditioning by-law.  

Pittsburgh Councillor Ryan Boehme, who voted in favour of the second option, said that the decision was about prioritizing education over punishment. “We want small businesses to adhere [to] and follow these rules simply because it is the right thing to do, not because we’re holding a stick over their head,” Boehme said.

Lakeside Councillor Wayne Hill echoed some of Boehme’s statements, speaking about the importance of working with the business community as opposed to punishing them: “What we’re doing here is we’re saying to our business community… ‘You’re guilty of not supporting our climate initiative,’ and that’s not the case… They’re certainly willing to participate with us in terms of meaningful climate change and real significant practical changes that are going to make a difference.” 

For Portsmouth Councillor Bridgette Doherty, the second option allows the City to work with the business community in its quest for climate solutions. “We will get the business community on board, and that is critical… let’s do it collaboratively,” she said.

Members of the Council also heard from several delegations who spoke in favour of the second option as opposed to the by-law. Karen Cross, CEO of the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce, addressed some of the concerns of her members and the broader public.

Cross stated, “A public survey was held in 2021 where almost 70 per cent of respondents expressed concern about the proposed by-law. Many responded to indicate that this would impact the success of their business, pointing to the barriers already faced by brick-and-mortar stores in the era of online shopping. Comments concerning walk-in traffic and the stores’ ability to attract customers without their doors being open were expressed.”

“We need to educate [about] other opportunities to achieve a new business model. We don’t have all the answers, but I don’t believe the answer is [to put] more barriers in front of businesses who are struggling to survive,” added Cross.

Cindy Gibson, an independent business retailer in downtown Kingston, addressed the importance of open doors to attract new customers. “If you want to know if this by-law will hurt us, the answer is yes. We see a dramatic difference in traffic when our door is closed… We’re not a chain, so if visitors don’t know us, they hesitate. A closed door is enough to make them walk right by; an open door is welcoming and enticing.”

Gibson added, “On those really muggy days, of course, we close our doors. The customers are seeking air conditioning, and we should be trusted just like you’re trusting the restaurants and all the other businesses that are exempt from this by-law.”

Christine Ray-Bratt, CEO of Chris James, questioned whether the proposed by-law would achieve its desired outcomes. “I understand the proposal, but I’m concerned whether full due diligence has been executed. What’s the proposed reduction of emissions versus the impact on businesses if this is enacted? What percentage of emissions does the [air conditioning] on commercial properties account for? How many businesses will this affect?”

Despite criticism from some councillors and delegations, not all members around the horseshoe opposed a strict by-law.

Trillium representative Robert Kiley argued that the second option would just create additional consultation and outreach, which the City has already undertaken for several years. “I don’t know what more we’re asking for, other than what the business community is asking of us… I’m happy to support the by-law because we did our public consultation, we did listen, and now we have to act,” he expressed, noting that the creation of by-laws is the methodology employed by city councils everywhere to make changes they want to see happen.

“I don’t know why Option 2 would be considered by Councillors, to be frank, because we did exactly what it’s asking for, and now that we’ve done that over years… I think we’ve given them plenty of notice,” Kiley said.

For Williamsville’s Jim Neill, a by-law would have aligned with the City’s declaration of a climate emergency, as well as the Climate Action Plan, which he noted was passed by a “vast majority.” Neill said, “Four years later, we’re debating about whether it’s a good idea to close doors and windows when our air conditioning is on. It’s unfortunate that that’s where we seem to be at right now. I think it’s critical for us… to judge whether our educational program and plan was enough.”

Neill indicated that Councillors who voted against the by-law may be judged by voters in the future. “The majority of people in Kingston are aware of the climate emergency, they’re very much aware of climate change, and we will all be judged by that and how we address it.” 

Mayor Bryan Paterson acknowledged the important role businesses will play in helping the City meet its climate targets, as he spoke against the by-law option. “Because climate change is so important, we need to take a big picture approach to this to make sure we have as many allies on side as possible… My concern is a by-law is going to poison the well and could hinder many other things we could do in teamwork with businesses towards our climate leadership plan,” he said. 

Countryside Councillor Gary Oosterhof argued that it should be up to the individual businesses to do what they can to reduce emissions: “We heard tonight from the business community that they have a handle on this, that they’re exercising everything they can do to be energy efficient, they’re smart business people.”  

Ultimately, councillors voted 7-6 in favour of the education and consultation option. Staff will now work with the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area, as well as the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce, to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a report to Council expected early next year.

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