By Chet Greason
Town Council once again revisited the downtown Heritage Conservation District (HCD) issue by holding a public meeting that, some in the audience charged, presented only the pro side without presenting the cons.
Councillor Don Van Galen said the presentation “was more of a sales pitch than a public meeting” and introduced a motion that would have opened the meeting with comments from the public. The motion could not find a seconder, though, and the meeting proceeded as planned.
Larry Pfaff, chair of the Town’s Heritage Committee, said the purpose of the designation, which would effectively declare all properties within the area bordered by the Thames, Trout Creek, Peel Street, and Elgin Street heritage properties, was not to prohibit growth, but to provide guidance. He cited the inclusion of financial assistance for renovation and restoration as a means for property owners to improve their buildings, and noted permits would only be required for things like windows, doors, and porches, but not for indoor, repointing, or painting.
“Main street has evolved, and will continue to evolve, over the past 170 years,” he said, adding “This is not a museum.”
Jan Hawley, from the Seaforth Business Improvement Area (BIA), showed a series of before-and-after photos of properties that have benefitted from Seaforth’s designation. Seaforth is one of over 100 communities in Ontario with heritage designations, as well as Stratford, Goderich, Bayfield, and London.
Hawley pointed out that, within Seaforth’s heritage district, they have a three per cent vacancy rate. “When parking is a problem, you know you’ve reached the top,” she said.
“Heritage is not a bad word,” she added. “Heritage is good for business, and business is good for heritage.”
Dr. Robert Shipley from the University of Waterloo’s Heritage Resource Centre presented statistics regarding communities that have taken on heritage designations, while Wayne Lyons, of Huron Insurance Managers Group, addressed insurance concerns. “The popular myth is that, once a building is in the area, insurance increases 30 per cent...That has not been the case in my experience,” he said, before going into details regarding Goderich’s insurance situation before and after the August, 2011 tornado hit.
Before opening up the floor to questions, Mayor Steve Grose noted that a petition opposing the heritage designation, signed by 20 property owners, had been submitted and was on the record.
Brian and Chantal Lynch, new to town and claiming they were unaware of the pending heritage designation when they bought their property, wondered if the information regarding the designation was outdated now that the economy had changed so much.
“If I have to replace my windows, I have option A and option B; but I can only afford A, but I have to have B, and winter’s coming...” said Chantal.
Krissy Graham-Nickle, a St. Marys resident who sits on Goderich’s Heritage Committee, said that Heritage committees will often hold special meetings if there is a pressing issue in order to get it to Council on time. “After the tornado hit, we were meeting bi-weekly,” she said. “As citizens, you have to hold your committee to task... For the most part, though, you’ll find that it’s not very restrictive.”
Kathy McPhail wondered how the Heritage Committee would enforce building standards on property owners who were letting their properties fall into disrepair. Pfaff responded that it would be like any other bylaw, and that it would be up to the town to decide how to enforce it. Chief Building Official Grant Brouwer further clarified that bills for repair that aren’t paid go on the property owner’s tax bill.
Brenda Reid wished someone from some of the other organizations with a say in the downtown, such as Upper Thames River Conservation Authority or the St. Marys BIA, could have presented, while Marti Lindsay voiced her concerns over owning a non-historical building within the confines of the proposed heritage district.
“If it’s a more modern house, it won’t require a permit as it’s not affecting heritage value,” clarified Dr. Shipley.
“A lot of people are saying they would do (heritage-complacent renovations) anyway, but it’s really more about the guy next door. Will they do something outrageous that will affect the value of your property?” he said, adding that a lack of understanding has led people to regard designations as a kind of gestapo. “These things are negotiated... compromised... The Tim Hortons in Cabbagetown (in Toronto) looks like no other Tim Hortons anywhere...it looks like it belongs in Cabbagetown.”
Lindsay added that she thought things are fine the way they are, and that citizens were telling Council to leave things as is.
Tammy Fluttert opined that the designation should be an option. “I don’t see the carrot,” she said. “You’re not giving me a break. I’ll have to follow more rules than the guy across the street. Why not make the whole town follow the same rules?”
Dr. Peter Johnson, who said he owns three properties within the proposed district, asked how many on Council will actually be affected by the designation. (The only Council member who owns property within the area, Carey Pope, had withdrawn due to pecuniary interest.) Councillor Stephen McCotter responded, saying, as residents of St. Marys, they would all be affected.
Rob Taylor said that, as an advocate for free enterprise, he objected to the designation. “I think we’re doing a better job in St. Marys than you’re doing in Seaforth, and we’re doing it on our own,” he said, addressing Hawley.
One of the last to speak was Peter Crosthwaite who, though he supports the Heritage District, said he was unhappy with the way the meeting was organized.
“If it’s all pros and no cons, no one is going to trust the pros,” he said.
“It’s competitive out there, Rob (addressing Taylor). We need every advantage we can get or we’re going to be left behind.”
Crosthwaite called on everyone in the audience who claimed to be unaware of details to take responsibility for themselves and find out. He also said he would like to see St. Marys adopt a town-wide heritage district like Niagara-On-The-Lake, so that one property won’t be worth less because it’s not within the district. “The only thing worse than going through with it is not going through with it,” he said. “Everybody here will benefit from a good program.”
Barb Tuer echoed these sentiments, saying property values are affected by the property’s neighbours. “Downtown is our most important asset. If it goes, the whole town, as an asset, will depreciate,” she said.
Mayor Grose said he appreciated everyone’s input, and that Council would take it all into account during any future decision making.