As the mercury soars and hockey season draws nearer to an end, Canadians are getting ready for that other great national pastime: the garage sale.
Perhaps nowhere has that tradition been stronger than the Eastern Townships
But now, residents say the tradition is threatened by a new town bylaw restricting the sales in an effort to keep the community from looking “junky,” in the words of Richard Wisdom, the mayor of Lac Brome, the amalgamated municipality that encompasses Knowlton.
The bylaw has sharply divided this ordinarily tranquil, mostly rural municipality of 6,000, where country friendliness has suddenly been replaced by bitter recriminations.
The debate, for some, highlights a rich-poor divide in this tony enclave that used to be the weekend retreat of Montreal’s blue-blooded anglo elite but now has a more diverse population and is struggling to revive its flagging economic base and attract young families and new businesses.
The dispute started in January when the town announced it would adopt a bylaw limiting yard sales to two weekends each year—in May and September—with a permit required to put on a sale and hefty fines for scofflaws.
Wisdom said the bylaw was motivated by “numerous” complaints from a “silent majority” of residents and that the town was merely mimicking other Townships communities like Magog and Bromont that have restricted yard sales, too.
“We’ve got to clean up,” he said.
“We want Knowlton to be a nice place where people can walk around without poles being littered with crap.”
He said some residents had sales every weekend and were essentially operating unofficial flea markets, while failing to remove signs from community hydro poles.
“The town would be peppered (with posters). Sometimes, there would be three on a post,” he said.
“We were getting criticism of how junky the town was looking.”
While many residents agree the posters were getting out of hand, the proposed bylaw provoked an angry response in an area where yard sales are a popular seasonal ritual—a time to drop in on neighbours, bump into friends and renew community bonds after a long winter.
The tradition is so engrained some aficionados get together to visit several sales as a group, plotting optimal routes to maximize browsing time.
Even the colourful signs for the sales have a quirky tradition of their own, often adorned with glitter and balloons.
“Yawd Friggin’ Sale Knowlton,” reads a poster for one sale in a photo published on the DestinationKnowlton.com website.
June Call, a lifelong Knowlton resident and health-care giver at a local seniors’ home, said the sales help poorer people pick up items they need and that the town could have responded with fines for errant posterers, instead of restricting everyone.
“It just made me think this isn’t right; it’s not fair,” she said.
“The whole community is super-angry about this,” said Sonia Fréchette, who moved to Knowlton four years ago to open the Brocante Casa antique store.
“I never heard a complaint. To the contrary, it seems to be part of the culture,” she said.
“My first reaction was: ‘What the #%^&!’” resident David Milligan wrote in a post on his DestinationKnowlton.com website.
While Milligan agreed some yard sales are “downright creepy” and offer only “the most questionable of junk,” he called the bylaw “draconian.”
“With tourism hitting all time lows in Lac Brome, how could someone have thought it would be a good idea to make a great Canadian cultural event practically illegal?” he asked in his post.
“Are they trying to launch a death-blow to Lac Brome?... Knowlton is more than just wealthy estate owners in a land of gated domains after all!”
The yard sale clamp-down prompted dozens of angry residents to attend a town council meeting in March. Before they could voice their opinions, Wisdom announced the town had backed down and would revise the bylaw.
“We have listened to you,” he said, promising to propose a new bylaw at the next council meeting in May.
What happened next stoked even more controversy. In April, the town put up notices saying it would adopt a revised version of the bylaw at a special meeting the following day.
Bylaw opponents scrambled to mobilize residents to attend the meeting, and about 30 showed up, already suspicious because of the short notice. A shouting match erupted when details of the new bylaw were announced.
The new rules would allow yard sales on five specific weekends between May and September. If it rains, residents would have to wait until the next designated weekend.
They would also be allowed to put up a single poster on their property and up to two others on neighbours’ properties, if they have permission.
Violators of the bylaw would face fines of $300 to $1,000. The new bylaw was adopted by the town council despite protests from residents, who said the restrictions were still too onerous and made it difficult for those living on isolated roads to attract customers.
“We were furious,” said Michele Brunt-Martel, a local daycare owner who has lived in Knowlton five years.
“People were yelling ‘dictator’ and ‘referendum.’ There was shouting, but there was reason for it.”
Brunt-Martel said she had wanted to hold a yard sale this summer to earn some needed pocket money and get rid of a few unwanted things.
But she said the restriction on postering means she’s unlikely to get much traffic on her isolated street, where she typically sees half a dozen cars pass in an entire day.
June Call is in the same position, living on a road with few passers-by. She said she rarely has garage sales herself, but doesn’t want to lose the ability to have one. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
Other critics said the bylaw will hurt tourism in a community already struggling with a decline in visitors after the recent construction of large box stores in nearby Bromont and Cowansville drew traffic from Knowlton’s smaller boutiques.
The town is studying how to revitalize its downtown, which is marred by several shuttered storefronts.
Fréchette, the antique store coowner, said the bylaw won’t help. “It will reduce tourism. Tourists like the sales. Knowlton is renowned for that,” she said.
She said the town would do better to focus on revitalizing. “Empty businesses dissuade tourists more than garage sales do.”
Maclean's scribe Martin Patriquin blogs about the controversy here and The Gazette publishes this letter and editorial note about Knowlton's yard sales brouhaha. Plus, here's David Milligan's post about all this on his DestinationKnowlton.com website (scroll down).