A classic failure to communicate and a promise that probably can’t be kept. The natives are not happy.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  November 19, 2011  – There was a failure to communicate – which can get a little awkward when there are more than 125 people in the room expecting very direct answers to questions regarding heritage housing designations and the people running the event thinking they were there to listen.  And that wasn’t easy with a microphone that kept squealing away.

Stephani McCallum, the facilitator imported from Ottawa to lead the community through a Heritage Workshop. She promised to get back to the community within two weeks. Wait for it.

The city brought in an outside facilitator,  Stephani McCallum of Dialogue Partners, an Ottawa based facilitation consulting firm.  She had her hands full for the first hour until she had a clearer sense of what the issue was and then asked the audience to tell her what mattered to them. “Give the process a chance” she asked, and because this was Burlington for the most part she got what she asked for.

In the first hour more than 24 people got up and went home convinced that the city just plain did not want to listen to the concerns of more than 125 people who attended a Heritage Workshop at Mainway Arena last Saturday.  Councillor Taylor said that some 200 people registered for the event, but the weather was nice and some may have come up with something better to do with their time.

A survey of 114 home owners was done before the Workshop with the data from the survey used to develop the content for the Saturday event.

There are some 1100 houses on what the city calls an inventory of historically interesting homes.  Each of those homes has a designation; either an A,B,C or a D.

There has been massive confusion as to just what the designation means and many people just do not understand why their homes are even on a list.  And they were out Saturday morning expecting answers.

“Who started this process” one resident wanted to know?  “Can we get some straight answers – right now” another resident demanded.

Note takers were busy people as they listened carefully to what home owners had to say about the city’s policy on designating homes.

“I am very frustrated with all this” added a third.  This wasn’t a crowd of just seniors; it was, if anything more slanted to people in their 40’s who didn’t like what they felt was being done to them.

The city convened the public workshop to educate a public that for the most part didn’t want to be educated – they “just wanted their properties taken off the damned list” as one Ward 4 resident put it.

The others just wanted answers and some clarity.

That wasn’t the mood of everyone in the room but there was certainly a lot of dis-satisfaction for which both the Planning Department and City Council are to blame.  Neither have communicated effectively with a public that has been unhappy with the way heritage has been handled by the city.  There appears to be some petty bickering going on between a few groups of people with each hunkered down with its position.  The greater good doesn’t seem to be a part of the dialogue – and if there is going to be any progress, city council is going to have to face this one directly.

The members of city council – and everyone was on hand – did more listening than I’ve ever seen them do in this kind of a public setting.  None of the senior executive people from the staff side of city hall were on hand.

Home owners at a Heritage Workshop had plenty to say – now the planners have to answer the questions. Within two weeks?

McCallum assigned a “note taker to each table” (there were about 20 tables) and had people talk about what they wanted and  write it out on a small piece of paper that got put up on a wall.  McCallum then sorted the questions, complaints and angst into different groupings and then explained that a table would be set up for each grouping to discuss the questions.  There was no one on hand to give answers – it was just a gathering of the questions.

There were six groupings – but the one that mattered to most was Property Rights and Values. Listing process, Listing criteria, Legislative responsibility and Criteria for a designation and Solutions were the other five.

Councillor Taylor works at listening to home owners who don’t like the city’s historical recognition policies.

The note takers were for the most part city hall staff who had volunteered for the day to be on hand.  Other than the free sandwiches at lunch, all they got was a thank you from the council members.  There was no round of applause for these people who did some very hard and at times exasperating work.  It was not Burlington at its best.

The home owners wanted input.  They were for the most part very confused.  One Ward 2 home owner said he felt he should have gotten a letter city telling him, what the designation on his home was, why it was given that designation and then an opportunity to decide if he wanted his home on the inventory.  Most seemed to believe there was a place for heritage recognition but didn’t feel there were 1100 homes in the city that merited historical recognition.

One wag spoke of a neighbour whose house had been designated.  He sent city hall a registered letter asking for confirmation of the designation and if the house was on the designated heritage property list then he wanted it taken off.  That was seven months ago and he hasn’t heard a word from anyone at city hall.

Then there was Donna who was very vocal at the start of the meeting and had this to say at the end: “I got what I needed to know, but I don’t think anyone else did.  I got answers, because I asked very deliberate questions of specific people.  This could have been put up on a Power Point, and we could have all gone home.

Another resident had no idea how his house got put on a list and felt “the city should have no say with what we do to our homes”.   At no point during the workshop did any one plead for the need to recognize and preserve historically significant property.  Yet whenever anyone suggests the smallest change to the Paletta Mansion on Lakeshore Road all hullaballoo breaks out – so at some level history matters.  Is Burlington the kind of city that says history matters but I don’t want to pay for it and don’t apply any of the rules to my property?  Is that why the Freeman station sits close to rotting beside the fire station on Fairview Street?

Councillor Dennison lets home owners bend his ear. He did however speak up for the historical designation of homes.

If that’s the case – this city has some growing up to do.

The home owners wanted input – and they weren’t shy about telling the note takers what they wanted..

A voluntary process – not someone deciding arbitrarily that a home was on a list.

No unilateral decisions..

Tax breaks for homes that are put on a Heritage registry

What have other municipalities done?

If a houses is going to be designated the city has to meet with the homeowner and the neighbours..

Wipe out the lists and get rid of the Registry.

Remove any authority from the Heritage Advisory Committee.

It was mid-day and time for lunch.  Sandwiches and soft drinks were laid out on tables and the room was suddenly very quiet.  It was almost like a large barn where the cattle, having been fed were settling in for the night chewing away on their cuds.

Stephani McCallum promised the audience she would get back to them with a report in two weeks – it is going to be very difficult for her to complete the massive task in front of her and, she will not report to the community.  She will report to the Planning department who many feel is the group that created the problem in the first place.  Planning will, according to Stephani, answer all the questions she sends along to them.  For the citizen waiting more than seven months for a reply to a registered letter this will indeed come as a surprise – but that was her undertaking.

You could feel the event winding down.  McCallum asked people if they wanted to continue talking – please do so – very few did – this road show was over.

The note takers worked with facilitator Stephani McCallum, on the left. All the note takers were city hall staff volunteering their time.

The Planning Department will go through everything the facilitator sends them and get back to the appropriate City Council committee with some recommendations.  Given the ear bending every council member had to put up with on Saturday – Council just might pre-empt the Planners and come up with a Staff Direction to the Planners.

McCallum will first get back to the community with what she heard and promised to do that within two weeks.  Part of the “what she heard” will be to set out all the questions which she then understands the Planning Department will answer – THAT will be a feat and a half.  We say that because for the most part Planning has already answered all the questions and yet there are still people who are very unhappy – so somewhere there is a failure to communicate.

McCallum understands the passion people have for their homes and she has found that the higher the passion the greater the opportunity to explain and resolve difference.

McCallum’s work will go to the Planning department where the questions she passes on will get answered – with the answers being put up on the city’s web site (And good luck in navigating that bucket of information.)    Surprisingly, McCallum, who was brought in to facilitate a public meeting on one of the thornier Planning Department problems but  didn’t get to the meet with the Planner, Bruce Krushelnicki.  One would have thought that an issue that has such a high profile would warrant at least a ten minute conversation with the person who was hired to interact with a public in a high profile planning problem.  Is this where the failure to communicate lays?

Councillor Craven may have felt his McMaster jacket would ward off some negative comment. Don’t think it did – every member of Council had their ears bent by the 125 people who showed up at the Mainway Arena Saturday afternoon.

Burlington as a city has to decide what it wants in terms of keeping its history alive.  There appears to be a small group that is passionate about what they want for the city and a thousand or more home owners who don’t share that passion and don’t understand, why they are being pushed around.  They just want to live in the homes they own, keep them in good repair and be able to sell them if and when they want to sell them.  And if they want to put on an addition they feel they should be able to do so.

Burlington doesn’t appear to have a sense of what it’s history is all about and some of that responsibility rests with the Historical Society who clearly have not done their job of informing the  public.

We didn’t hear anyone standing up for historical recognition at the Saturday meeting.  Ward 4 Councillor Jack Dennison rose to speak during one of the group discussions and explained that a house on Lakeshore Road where he lived had a designation on it which meant a developer could not tear the house down for a period of 30 days – and with that designation he explained we were able to save a historically significant house”.

“At whose expense” came a comment from a table with a group of particularly nasty people who just did not want to listen. “We know what we want” – and it wasn’t a registry or an inventory – they wanted to be able to do whatever they wanted to do with their homes.  There was a surprising lack of civility at this particular table.

Mayor gets ears bent – doesn’t say ouchh.

Mayor Goldring spoke close to the end of the meeting and assured those that were left that he was “committed to resolving this problem.  I can’t give you a date – but you have my commitment.”

All the politicians met with people one-on-one and let them bend their ears.  City Council has a bee that is going to sit inside their bonnet and if something isn’t done – council members are going to get stung.

McCallum in her final report to the city will make recommendations as to the process the city should follow.  Based on what I saw at the event at the arena on Saturday – this council isn’t going to wait very long before it does something.




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