By James Matthews, Local Initiative Journalism Reporter
It’s as if renting a property through Airbnb is a means to consequence-free revelry for the renter and whatever fines may come to the owner.
Minden Hills property owner Timothy Groves described such a situation to township council during its Oct. 26 regular meeting. He was appealing a fine levied against him because of a recreational fire lit by a party of people who’d rented his property by way of Airbnb.
The campfire was lit during the summer’s county-wide ban on open-air fires.
“If it’s discretionary who you ticket and send an invoice to, if it’s discretionary I would highly recommend that you send it to the person that actually did it versus somebody who wasn’t even in the county at the time,” Groves said.
On June 23, Groves had rented out his property through the Airbnb platform. That renter, Groves said, had a fire when such recreational burning was prohibited throughout Haliburton County and, indeed, much of the province.
Dry conditions caused record forest fires through much of the province’s northern and eastern parts. The wind brought all manner of torment such as smoke and ash and the fearsome smell of burning stands of trees.
“When you drive down Lutterworth Valley on Gull River, you see a Fire Ban sign,” Groves said. “That sign is 50-feet or 60-feet from my property line. And you could smell it (the smoke) in the air.”
He said he has no responsibility as a host to provide fire wood. And he doesn’t provide the means for guests to have a fire.
“I don’t even trust guests that rent my cottage to handle an axe,” he said. “So I don’t even provide an axe for kindling.”
On the refrigerator inside the cottage, Groves has posted a request to renters to visit the Township of Minden Hills website to get an understanding of the fire regulations.
“We even state the bylaw and (website) link,” he said. “And we put the onus on the person, the guest, because we can’t be the police for everybody for every certain thing.”
Groves referenced in his appeal to council Part 6, penalties and costs, of the municipality’s bylaw for regulating fires.
The legislation states: “Any person and/or owner setting, maintaining or allowing to be set or maintained, an open-air fire or fireworks and in contravention of the terms of this bylaw shall be responsible for any damages to property or person occasioned by said fire.”
And here’s the rub: Even though he’s the property owner, he was 200 kilometres away from Minden Hills and the property when the fire occurred.
“We didn’t allow it to be set,” he said.
He saw there was a firefighter on scene when he checked the property’s security camera, so he contacted the guests and asked what was happening.
“(The renter) said we lit a fire … the fire person’s here, the crew’s here,” Groves said. “We immediately contacted Airbnb. At that point, they broke our house rules, so at that point they became a trespasser.”
He said to council that it should have been such that the person who lit the fire was fined. As it is, it’s become impossible for him to collect any money from Airbnb with Groves’ name on the fine invoice, he said. The fine citation should have had the renter’s name, he said.
He’s tried to find out which person of the group who were at his property lit the fire. But the Airbnb platform does not allow property owners to have the telephone numbers and permanent addresses of renters.
“So I can’t even pursue this in small claims court because I can’t provide an identification of the person that actually did it,” he said. “So I’m kind of stymied because I didn’t do it. I didn’t maintain it. I didn’t allow it to be maintained.”
He asked that council take into consideration that as soon as the renters lit the fire they became trespassers on his property.
Councillor Ivan Ingram said he can appreciate how Groves feels about the situation.
“But, to me, reality is that you rented your cottage, you’re responsible for it regardless of who is there,” Ingram said.
“If the person commits a murder, am I to do the time?” Groves said.
“If your house burns down are they (renters) going to pay for it?” Ingram said.
“My insurance will cover it,” Groves said.
“Okay,” Ingram said.
“Okay,” Groves said. “So I’m underwriting Minden Hills Fire Department?”
“No,” Ingram said. “You’re receiving income as a business renting your cottage.”
Groves said the crux of the issue is that the bylaw state that any person setting the fire is responsible. “I didn’t set it,” he said.
“If I may, this is not a debate,” said Mayor Bob Carter. “You are making a presentation to us and we can ask you some questions, but we’re not going to engage in a debate here. If you’ve given us all of your information … then we can say thank you.”
“Thank you. I don’t want to debate either,” Groves said.
Coun. Tammy McKelvey said she was prepared to deny Groves’ appeal of the penalty.
“We can’t start chasing somebody we don’t know,” she said. “It’s got to be homeowners.”
“This isn’t over because I feel it’s unjust,” Groves said. “I’m going to look to a higher court, provincial level.”
“You have that right,” Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell said.
“Maybe a judge …,” Groves said as Schell said there was a resolution before council for consideration and Groves asked to finish his statement.
“May I finish?” Groves said.
“No you actually can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry, sir, we already have the resolution set in motion.”
That motion was that council deny the request to waive the $809.03 penalty.