By Robert Washburn
A gathering of heritage activist, bureaucrats and politicians for the Ontario Heritage Conference in Cobourg this weekend marks an opportunity to assess and strategize around the way municipalities, the province and the federal government is protecting our past for the future.
West Northumberland presents a textbook of the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, but also the challenges for the future.
The recent debate over the prospect of 139 Bagot Street is a good example. Heritage property owner Grant Watson applied for a demolition permit, but the town denied him, waiting for an engineering report.
In media reports, Watson shows no regard for the town or his heritage property, saying he will not bring in an engineer due to the expense. He wants the town to pay.
Instead, he will wait out the 90 period meant to be a buffer to allow all parties – property owner, municipality, heritage committee and others – to work out a deal. Once the 90 days are up, the permit will be granted. The building will come down.
What is next for the property, no one knows. The buyer has no responsibility to build a replacement or a replica of the 1875 Ontario Cottage, just something that is in keeping with the other architecture. (Remember the battle over Mr. Sub on King Street in Cobourg to see how well that process goes.)
Then, there is 121 Cavan Street in Port Hope. The old Nicholson File factory built in 1853 sits abandoned as the town hopes to sell it to someone who will restore it similar to the Chalk Carriage Works, which was turned into apartments.
But saving buildings is only the beginning. Cobourg is working on a heritage window policy, the first of its kind in Ontario. In an effort to address the continuous conflict between well-meaning property owners and the heritage guidelines, the town wants to find a way to mediate the desire to keep heritage details while not sending property owners into the stratosphere over costs.
Property owner Donald Pirie bemoaned the process as he worked to co-operate with the town’s heritage committee last week. Just out of luck, the committee did not have quorum. If Heritage planner Stephen Ashton did not step in and provide staff approvals, Pirie could have waited another two weeks before he could go forward waiting for town council to give its final approvals.
None of this is new for heritage advocates. These same battles are fought in municipalities across Ontario constantly. Sadly, it depends on the commitment of politicians, staff, heritage supporters and sympathetic property owners.
But, it is not only the obvious players who need to buy in. Relators, insurance brokers, contractors and so forth must also buy in. In fact, we all do. If there is not the community support, then those bent on disregarding our heritage will soon ensure there is nothing left.
Those who support heritage are often marginalized. As more right-wing ideologues dominate the public debate, individual property rights are pushed over the communal good. Heritage guidelines and bylaws are treated as a nuisance, not a necessity.
The attitude seems to be heritage is good when people can profit from it, but not when it is going to cost them.
It is this public’s attitude that must be changed. Without this, the debate is lost before it is begun. Property is left to waste. Restoration is about bucks, not integrity. And, heritage properties are memories, not real places anymore.
No one envies the conference participants this weekend. What we can hope is that they leave re-energized and re-committed, because the battle is far from over. And, it is not getting any easier.