Tanner: Is the Heritage advisory committee protecting our history or are they focused on property right?

opiniongreen 100x100By Roland Tanner

September 15th, 2018


The Gazette is publishing an increased number of Opinion pieces.  During the lead up to an election we believe that people who are not incumbents and don’t have the weight of a profile created at public expense, need opportunities to put their views and opinions forward.  We don’t, for the most part, go looking for opinions; although we have in the past asked a candidate for their view on an issue.  Most decline.

The Opinion space is open to be incumbents and candidates who are new to the political arena.  We do not publish the self serving views that get sent our way.

Of late, one has to ask what heritage Heritage Burlington does want to protect. The citizens advisory committee, which portrays itself prominently, with a significant city budget, as the guardian of Burlington’s heritage and history, has a habit of taking a significantly anti-heritage line when it comes to even limited heritage protection. The issue of heritage protection goes to the core of where the city currently stands and the issues at stake at this election.

Stewart Spence House ward 1 Old Waterdown Rd

The ‘Stewart Spence House’ located near Old Waterdown Road in Ward 1.

The ‘Stewart Spence House’ located near Old Waterdown Road in Ward 1.

I was planning to delegate to the Planning and Development Committee on Monday on the issue of a property listed on the municipal heritage register in Ward 1 called the ‘Stewart Spence House’, 176 Rennick Road. The owners, Canada Trust, had requested the building be removed from the municipal register. This would have enabled the owners to demolish the property, a 19th century farmhouse, without any further recourse to the city for permission. At the last minute, just as the committee began to sit, it was announced that the property had sold, and the new owners were wanted to remain on the city heritage property list. It was a happy result, and one that meant I could withdraw my delegation.

However the reason I was delegating was because of an unhappiness about the actions of Heritage Burlington, which recommended, contrary to the staff recommendation, that the property be removed from the municipal register, opening the way for demolition. As it is, the municipal heritage register provides almost no protection to heritage buildings. All it does is allow the city 60 days to decide whether to formally designate the property as a heritage property under provincial law. To remove even this scant protection seemed astonishing and needless from the point of view of Heritage Burlington. There was, quite simply, zero evidence provided as to why the property needed to be removed, least of all by the then owner, Canada Trust.

Why Heritage Matters: A Lesson from a Town that Got It All Wrong

I grew up in an English town west of London that is renowned for its planning mistakes. It is well known for its lack of heritage. It is famous for its ugliness and the butt of jokes by the Poet Laureate John Betjeman and world-famous comedian Ricky Gervais alike. Even the town’s name, Slough, is a national joke.

But it wasn’t always that way. It was at one time a pleasant if unspectacular English town. It had many interesting buildings, but few that were outstanding. It was therefore easy enough over the years to make the case for why they could be replaced. A Victorian Station hotel was knocked down for an office block which was so ugly it has already in turn been demolished.

The beautiful Georgian townhouse of Sir William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, was knocked down for a car dealership. The church that may have inspired Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard was surrounded by a roundabout and a four lane dual carriageway. A supermarket was built opposite, and then an Edwardian School and its grounds were sold off and demolished for another supermarket right next door. In my suburb, called Langley Marish, the medieval village green and duckpond were paved over for a bus stop, and the ancient thatched cottages were demolished to make way for breeze-block council houses.

By small degrees, over about thirty years after the Second World War, the built environment became hostile, vandalized, polluted and entirely regrettable. What the Luftwaffe completely failed to do between 1939 and 1945, planners and Councillors with excellent intentions did with ruthless efficiency between 1945 and the 1990s.

This is how regrettable mistakes get made: in small incremental decisions that alone don’t appear to amount to very much. But in a city like Burlington, which has a very small stock of historic buildings, we have to view each century home with greater care. Because we have so few heritage properties, the buildings we have assume a greater importance. A modest 19th century farmhouse in Burlington is much more important to future generations and the quality of our built environment than one in say, Kingston, Quebec City or Montreal, where the supply of heritage properties is greater in number and quality.

If designation had been lost, it was highly likely the house would have been demolished. The only reason for removal of designation that I could see was either to demolish the building now, or increase land value for a sale to a buyer who would potentially demolish it later. Thankfully, the sale of the property avoided any such circumstance, and the new owners seem happy to own a house on the city register.

Is Heritage Burlington a Defender of Heritage, or an Arbiter of Heritage Value?

But that brings me to my second, more important and procedural, point. Canada Trust to my knowledge never told the city their motivations. We can infer though that Canada Trust as inheritor of the previous owner was not interested in the property itself. They did not provide any evidence to suggest why the Planning Committee should reconsider the earlier Council decision which provided limited register protection to the building.

Why, in that case, was a change even considered? In the current procedure, all the owner has to do is ask for removal from the register. The city and Heritage Burlington then does all the work of deciding whether the owner has a valid case! In human legal terms, this is like a presumption of guilt, with the defense and the judge helping argue the prosecution’s case. The building is accused of having no value, and City Staff and Heritage Burlington, which markets itself extensively as Burlington’s guardian of heritage, set about gathering evidence to support the owner’s case, at the taxpayers’ expense I presume. It is a conflict of function if not a conflict of interest, and it is illogical and destructive procedure.

We should be working on the presumption that earlier Council decisions were good until proven otherwise, and NOT require heritage buildings to have to re-establish their value repeatedly for each new generation. Above all, Heritage Burlington can’t have it both ways. It can’t portray itself as the guardian and champion of our city’s history while holding a partner role as judge, jury and executioner on our small historic housing stock. It is one of the many problems with the Citizen Advisory Committee system as currently constituted, and I say that with the greatest of respect for the members of the committee and their work.

I was pleased to see that staff recommended 176 Rennick Road be kept on the register. I was disturbed to see that Heritage Burlington had recommended it be removed. In the current climate I was concerned that would be enough for the second heritage property to lose it’s protection just within the last few months by vote of this Council, and one of two 19th century buildings facing delisting or demolition at the Monday meeting. The burden of proof should be on the owner to prove the city’s designation is wrong. Until such a time, we should assume past Council decisions are correct and leave the building on the register with the admittedly very limited protection that provides.

This is just the latest example of Heritage Burlington’s worrying tendency to act on behalf of “property owners’ rights” against even highly limited heritage protections after it was reconfigured approximately eight years ago. The then city register of properties was slashed in size, and the old database of properties taken offline. In 2013 the committee sided with Councillor Jack Dennison in his request to sever a lot in the sensitive Roseland neighbourhood, again contrary to a staff report.

1800s map Burlington

Map of 418 Burlington Ave in 1858, then within the township of Wellington Square. The building will soon be demolished, despite studies highlighting its importance to the history of Burlington and the streetscape, based in large part of Heritage Burlington again contradicting staff recommendations.

On May 15th, Heritage Burlington also voted to remove 418 Burlington Avenue from the municipal register, allowing demolition. Again this was contrary to staff recommendations. The minutes of the meeting suggest there was a considerable divide over the decision. This was done at the same time as a recommendation to set up a meeting with the owner to “to discuss options available”. Since the objective of the owner was to demolish, and Heritage Burlington had voted to remove the building’s limited protection, it is unclear what remained to be discussed.

Heritage Burlington’s minutes and decisions are not easy to find on the city website and are not listed on the Heritage Burlington website, making it very difficult to assess trends in their decisions. I have not yet been able to trace the minutes of the meeting where the decision was made to support removal of the Stewart Spence House from the municipal register.

See related stories at:

Choosing between heritage and the need to intensify.

Residents in a huff over being stiffed be Heritage committee


Tanner standingRoland Tanner is a candidate for the ward 2 city council seat. He was a member of the committee that wrote the Shape Burlington report in 2010

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12 comments to Tanner: Is the Heritage advisory committee protecting our history or are they focused on property right?

  • Hans

    Re: Pepper’s “…we believe that people who are not incumbents and don’t have the weight of a profile created at public expense, need opportunities to put their views and opinions forward.” – I applaud Pepper for that position and thank him for helping to level the figurative “playing field”.

    Mr. Tanner is the kind of person this city needs on its new council.

  • “Why Heritage Matters: A Lesson from a Town that Got It All Wrong”. It seems to me , we could supplant the city of Slough with the city of Burlington, as there may come a day when some future writer will be saying, they grew up in a Canadian town west of Toronto that is “renowned for its planning mistakes”, is “well known for its lack of heritage”, ugliness, traffic congestion, tall buildings, lack of green space… etc. etc. One more reason why this election is so important and why the entire slate of candidates requires circumspection.

  • Daphne

    I thoroughly agree with this article. When last I looked there was a developer and at least 1 known property rights activist, possibly two. Burlington has lost so many heritage buildings, removing much needed historical context and charm. Member’s names and committee minutes should be published if they are not. There are multi-year memberships for some of these individuals I believe. Perhaps a term limit would rid the committee of any such bias. Heritage is poorly protected in Burlington.

  • Marilyn A.

    This opinion piece by Roland Tanner just solidified my vote for the next Ward 2 councillor to replace Marianne Meed Ward. She, too, is a warrior with respect to Burlington’s rich heritage.

    It is shocking that Heritage Burlington voted to delist these two homes from the register! Their removal also removes the builder’s story, the owners story, green landscape and old growth trees. These and other benefits are too numerous to be mentioned here.

    Our heritage is essentially who we are as citizens of this vibrant community. If the demolitions continue, we will become just another city whose soul has been removed forever!

    In the coming election, Roland Tanner and Marianne Meed Ward are two advocates to protect Burlington’s story. Ask questions of potential Ward councillors and Mayor before you cast your vote!

  • Hi Kerry – they are posted, but not on the Heritage Burlington website, and they’re hard to find on the Burlington City website. The most recent minutes appear not to be available yet.

    • Maggie

      Because of the election Heritage Burlington, as well as other citizens advisory committee’s has not met since spring.

  • Stephen White

    Great summary Roland! Thanks for shedding additional light and perspective on this important issue.

    Those who value Burlington’s history and heritage, and who place significant value on preserving historical buildings as a link to our past traditions, should be very mindful of what is happening throughout our City. Developers have little regard for maintaining historical buildings. It’s all about uniformity, intensification and, of course, profit.

  • Michael Jones

    Adding to this. I met a family from New York City just last night walking our downtown core paper in hand on an adventure to discover the history our City. After visiting Niagara On the Lake they thought they would visit and explore our town. We met because they walked up and down Pine looking for an address. I unfortunately had to inform them the house they seek had been torn down for condo’s. I flipped through the pages to see sadly a few buildings were gone. People come to see the history of our City not the towers. “We see them enough of those in NYC” they said. After giving them a history lesson on Emma’s back porch they went off to dinner on the patio. Another sad commentary on losing the value of or historical properties..Michael jones also a Ward 2 candidate

  • Kerry D

    Do they not have to publish their minutes on their website for transparency? This is a small but yet another important implementation and direction the new Council needs to enforce after the next election.