Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
A local woman is in a fight with city hall over renovations to a heritage designated building in downtown Stratford.
Jillian Chambers attended Thursday’s planning and heritage subcommittee meeting to defend work she had completed at 22 Ontario St. – improvements to the facade that, depending on where council sits on the issue, could lead to an Ontario Municipal Board appeal or even legal action taken by the city.
Chambers and her husband Steve recently purchased the building to live in the upstairs dwelling. The main floor is occupied by Canadian Soul clothing store.
Chambers had new windows installed; she said the old ones couldn’t be opened and were badly in need of replacing. She and her husband have a four-month-old baby, and as a safety precaution, also had guardrails installed on both windows flush to the wall.
The work, however, was done without approval from the city’s heritage committee; a heritage permit is required since the property falls within the city’s Heritage Conservation District.
During a lengthy questioning by committee members which at times felt almost like a court cross examination, Chambers said she only learned that she might need a heritage permit after dealing with the city for a new sign for her York Street business, Grotto Hair Studio.
But by then the windows had already been ordered and the railings built, she said.
“The money had already been given to the contractor,” she added.
At that point, she applied for a permit, but the proposal was rejected by Heritage Stratford, which reviews improvement applications and makes recommendations to subcommittee.
When she learned her application had been denied, Chambers said her contractor, whom she described as being reputable, advised her go ahead with the work, and that it would be cheaper to remove the new windows and railings later if necessary.
Chambers said the contractor, who was not identified, never told her she required a permit for the work, though it was noted by city staff the contractor has done work in the downtown core in the past and would have known special approval was needed.
She also noted she and her husband purchased the property privately, and were never informed at that point either.
“We were just trying to improve the building in general,” Chambers said. “We didn’t realize you can’t replace things on a downtown building that you think are just normal things that need replacing.”
While he acknowledged the contractor has some culpability in the matter, committee member Paul Nickel said the property owners were just as at fault. He suggested as a business owner in the downtown, Chambers would have known about the Heritage Conservation District.
“I think there’s some fudging going on a bit here,” he added.
Chambers came to the meeting armed with photographs of other buildings in the downtown core that have similar guardrails installed.
Other pictures showed buildings with boarded up windows and others that obviously need replacing, prompting a clearly frustrated Chambers to ask why the work she had done is even an issue.
“It seems like a very silly thing that we’re debating here when you look at the other buildings in the downtown core that clearly need some work,” she added.
Planning and Heritage chair Karen Smythe said the issue was not silly, noting the conservation district has rules and regulation in place for a reason, and that they are there for everyone to abide by.
“That’s the idea of designation,” she added, “to have (the buildings) conform so it has a heritage look.”
It is not entirely clear as to why the heritage committee did not approve the facade work, a point that bothered Nickel, who put forward a motion to have the Heritage Stratford chair speak to the matter at a later date.
That motion was defeated, along with a second motion that would have allowed Chambers to keep the work that’s been done.
Instead, subcommittee agreed to send the matter to city council for its Jan. 14 meeting with no recommendation.
If council supports the heritage committee, Chambers would have a period of time to remove the changes she made to the building.
She could choose to appeal to the OMB, but if she was unsuccessful and still refused to reinstate the building’s original features, the city could initiate legal proceedings under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Nickel scoffed at that idea.
“I guarantee I would not agree to prosecute. It would be a messy situation ... it wouldn’t make any sense from the city’s perspective,” he said.
Smythe added the city could decide to let the work stand, but she worries that will open the door for other contractors to disobey the rules in the future.
Chambers suggested future downtown building owners be provided with some sort of a package “so we know what we can and can’t do to the buildings.”
When city council deals with this matter in the new year it will also address a motion asking that heritage restoration guidelines and regulations be sent to downtown building owners as well as the Stratford & Area Builders’ Association and the local real estate board.
Chief building official Dave Carroll also said he would have a talk with the contractor who completed the work in question.