By Stew Slater
With one town councillor not voting due to pecuniary interest and two not voting because they were absent, it took a close 2-1 vote on Tuesday, Oct. 2 to push the proposed Heritage Conservation District (HCD) to a final decision on Tuesday, Oct. 23.
At last Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Councillors Lynne Hainer and Tony Winter voted in favour of sending the proposal to the Oct. 23 regular Council meeting. Don Van Galen was the only one opposed, while Carey Pope, a downtown business operator, has consistently abstained from discussion of the HCD due to pecuniary interest.
Councillors Stephen McCotter and Bill Osborne were not in attendance.
“I would much rather see this as an optional program . . . in which people choose to have their properties under (Heritage) designation, as opposed to a District-wide approach taking in all properties, some of which might be more properly redeveloped rather than maintained in their existing state,” Van Galen argued during discussion prior to the vote.
The Oct. 23 recommendation will read: “That Council approves the implementation of the Heritage Conservation District in the Town of St. Marys according to the 2012 Heritage Conservation District Plan.” A report for last week’s meeting explained “the HCD will never be used to force a property owner to change a currently existing feature of a building. Property owners should consult with town staff before commencing any work on the façade of their building. Should a permit be required, the HCD Committee will discuss the permit and meet with the owner.”
Options for financial incentives remain up for discussion. The Oct. 2 report notes there is allowance in the Ontario Heritage Act for a property tax incentive, whereby all properties within the HCD are granted tax discounts. “Municipalities such as Owen Sound and Seaforth have included a 20 per cent tax relief program,” the report notes.
Mayor Steve Grose, however, expressed reluctance to ask the rest of the town’s ratepayers to pay for such a program. The report notes it would cost the Town $50,505 for every 10 per cent tax discount granted the properties within the proposed HCD.
Instead, the mayor favoured a program similar to what already exists in the form of the town’s Façade Improvement grant, whereby a portion of taxes from the HCD properties go into a pool of funds, and those are eventually paid out to property owners who decide to improve or maintain the heritage characteristics of their downtown buildings.
Van Galen said taking a Façade Improve-ment approach would simply add to the anger of those who don’t want their properties to come under a district-wide designation.
“If Council approves an HCD without those (tax relief) measures, they’re going to be told that all this is is regulations and words,” the veteran councillor argued.
Van Galen’s suggestion, instead, was to tap into a different section of the Ontario Her-itage Act, which allows for voluntary property-by-property designation within a given zone. “Then we’ll have a program that everyone can embrace, rather than the very divisive discussion that has been taking place.” CAO Kevin McLlwain advised that approach “would be much more complicated.”
McLlwain was also asked by Van Galen to defend the fact that nowhere in the staff report was it stated that some people oppose the HCD because they’re concerned about the rights of property owners to decide the fate of their own buildings. The CAO responded that, although that viewpoint may have been expressed during informal discussions or a privately-organized information meeting, it was never mentioned during Council discussions or during a Town-organized public information meeting in mid-September.
Both Grose and Hainer, however, agreed with Van Galen that private property rights are a major sticking point for several HCD opponents. Grose conceded, “what I heard over and over again is ‘it’s my property. Don’t tell me what to do with it.’ But what I also heard at that Public Meeting at the Town Hall is that the Heritage Committee won’t do that. It will be a separate committee” from the Heritage Committee that will be meeting with property owners, and making suggestions for and recommending the approval of permits.
And Hainer said the need to appease property rights concerns is “why it’s imperative that we go the next step and make available all the tools that can go along with this, for those property owners.”