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Will Collingwood’s Heritage District Be Destroyed Some Day?

Posted by Sherry Rioux on June 15, 2009

Quick – when you think of Elora, Fergus or Niagara-on-the-lake, what do you see in your mind’s eye?  I think most people would agree that they see quaint old towns built on a foundation of heritage buildings and planning.  Take it further and think of places like England, Greece, Rome or Havana and you see living examples of the past that define the very values of the people who live there.  They just don’t make them like they used to, do they?

Closer to home, we have the Village at Blue where the built form of Intrawests development is a re-creation of Olde Ontario.  They know it sells.  But closer still, Collingwood is the real thing.  A true 19th century main street and a community dotted with buildings that harken back to ships captains, loggers and the railway.

Today, the town is becoming well known for its constant battles to protect that heritage.  The pressures of growth and development are often seen to be at odds with the desire for preserving the built form of our past.  Indeed, this very pull of two views became a cornerstone issue in the last election and it sure to be again in the next.  At very least, what Collingwood does have as of February 2009 is an official Heritage District protected by the Ontario Heritage Act of 2005.  Or is it?

In Ontario, planning decisions can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB)  which has often been accused in the past of not being very transparent or accountable in their decision making.  Although the current McGuinty government promised planning reforms to provide clearer direction on planning matters, they have, in my opinion, failed to bring about any meaningful changes.  A recent situation is a strong case in point and a wake-up call for heritage proponents right here at home.

Like Collingwood, the town of Port Dalhousie which is now part of St. Catherines, Ontario has a heritage district in their downtown core.  The village dates back to 1826 and today has a charming mid-to-late 19th century canal village streetscape.  In 2003, the town voted overwhelmingly to establish a Heritage District.  When the plan was approved, the OMB said, “ Board finds that : “..the process followed by the City has been a full public process and all requirements of the Province have been complied with.” and  “… the designation of the subject area as a Heritage Conservation District represents good planning.”

Just months later in the spring of 2004, developer PDVC came forward with a plan that included among other things, a 33 storey high condo tower despite the fact that both the city’s zoning by-law and heritage guidelines limited development to a maximum of 3 storeys.  (Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?) The plan was later amended calling for a 20 storey condo tower among other things.   A group called PROUD  opposed the plan  and over the last 6 years, waged a costly battle to preserve their heritage district.

During a 71 day OMB hearing, the developer argued that the Heritage District guidelines of that community did not spell out height limitations.  They furthered argued that the economic benefits to be brought about by the development would serve to protect Port Dalhousie’s heritage in the long term.  On the flip side, heritage experts argued that of course the heritage plan would never contemplate 20 storeys and further, the zoning by-law prohibited development beyond three storeys.  They further stated that a claim of economic benefit was neither proven nor, was it is the jurisdiction of the OMB who was only to consider planning matters and not economics.

In the end, the OMB rendered what many consider to be a shocking decision by allowing the developers application.  Yes, for the first time in the history of the OMB, they agreed that a 20 storey condo tower was suitable in a low-rise heritage district and that it represented good planning.  The Ontario Ministry responsible for the Heritage Act and Provincial Policy Statement on heritage was nowhere to be found in the hearing.  They took no role in defending the very laws they had written.

No matter what side of the issue you may fall on, surely you can see the glaringly obvious facts here.  A 20 (or 17 or 10 or 8 ) storey building does not belong in a heritage district.  I don’t care what the economic justifications are.  If the laws are designed to protect the heritage of a few blocks here and there, then for land’s sake, do it.

I can’t help but wonder how strong the HCD plan is in Collingwood.  Is it now vulnerable to this type of inappropriate development?

No, they don’t make them like they used to.  No, there is no such thing as “new heritage’ as a former Mayor of Collingwood once claimed.  In our relative infancy as a nation, Canada has a long way to go before it learns the lessons of the importance AND economic  value of preserving our heritage.  Based on this recent OMB decision, you can bet that in Ontario today, the government hasn’t learned that either.

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