Huntsville is fortunate to have many of its historic buildings still standing, some of them more than a century old. That’s partly due to a bylaw enacted just days after the great fire of 1894 — a fire that destroyed much of Main Street between the swing bridge and West Street — which prohibited buildings on Main Street from having exterior walls made of anything other than stone, brick or iron. The downtown buildings erected afterward, and many others throughout town, are cherished pieces of our heritage that many local residents are passionate about.
“Our main street has such great heritage characteristics and that’s what makes it charming and something both visitors and the people who live here really love,” says Teri Souter, the Town’s Manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage. “Those are the kinds of things we want to try to preserve.”
The Town of Huntsville continues to build awareness about its heritage features — both built and in the other forms it takes — and what can be done to preserve them. It maintains a register of heritage properties, both those that are designated and those that are of interest, and recently began populating an interactive map with their locations and details. (You can find both the list and map at huntsville.ca.) And it hosts information sessions, like the recent What’s New in Old Real Estate? presentation to educate people about heritage properties.
It’s a multi-department effort that includes Souter, Manager of Corporate Information Margaret Tilstra, Manager of Planning Kristin Maxwell, and Chief Building Official Christopher Nagy along with their respective departments. They must also work within existing bylaws and respect the rights of private property owners. It’s a balancing act at times.
“We have a lot of properties Huntsville that are listed on the register that are poised for reinvestment and renewal,” says Souter. “Without investment, these properties may sink into neglect and dereliction. Building applications on these properties will come to the Municipal Heritage Committee first. The recommendations of the Municipal Heritage Committee then go to Council for ratification. The final decision always rests with Council.”
The Municipal Heritage Committee comprises Councillor Jason FitzGerald (chair), Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano, Councillors Bob Stone, Nancy Alcock and Jonathan Wiebe, and Mayor Scott Aitchison (ex officio member).
“Councillor FitzGerald has a lot of experience in heritage restoration and a lot of interest in it and that’s something good to bring to our table,” notes Souter. “We also consult with outside groups when we can where it’s important to see what they may know or may not know.” Committee members and town staff also draw on files from the former Local Architectural Conservation Authority Commission (LACAC) and the Heritage Huntsville advisory committee to find statements of heritage value for properties.
Before a building permit can be obtained for a designated heritage property if an owner wants to renovate, proposed changes must first be approved by the Municipal Heritage Committee which will issue a heritage permit. There is no additional cost to the property owner for a heritage permit, but it does take time so the sooner an owner can apply, the better.
For properties of heritage interest, the committee can only step in if they receive a demolition notice at which point they can start the process of designating the property as heritage if warranted. It can do so against an owner’s wishes, although that would be an unusual decision.
“When we get orders to demolish we have to look at what the purpose of the building is and if there is a public safety issue. Sometimes buildings fall into disrepair and they are no longer salvageable,” says Souter. “We have to consider the best interests of the community as well as the property owner. The goal is always consultation and awareness rather than law and litigation and enforcement.”
Souter notes that the owners of many properties on the register of heritage interest don’t really want to have them designated, but they do want to protect the heritage of the building.
The Town is also investigating whether or not to adopt the provincial heritage property tax relief program, which would provide tax relief of between 10 and 40 per cent of the property taxes levied on eligible designated properties or the eligible portion of a property.
A recent heritage success story is the one of Madill Church. The property, which was of interest but not designated, was identified for demolition by its owners, the United Church. But its adjacent cemetery is the resting place of Huntsville’s namesake, Captain George Hunt, along with several of its early settlers. A group of concerned local citizens stepped forward and, with the assistance of Town staff, formed a group to take on preservation of the historic church.
“We were very pleased with the result so far in our work with the United Church to facilitate the Madill Church transfer of ownership to a non-municipal incorporated non-profit “The Madill Church Preservation Society” for protection,” says Souter.
She adds that there are a number of cost-prohibitive and legislated reasons why it may be preferable for a non-municipal owner of these properties. Municipalities are held to the highest standard of procurement, compliance, accessibility, public safety and preservation of personal privacy which can lead to higher maintenance and insurance costs and prohibitive security videotaping of properties which a non-municipal entity would not experience, says Souter.
Huntsville’s Town Council recently heard a deputation from the Anglican Diocese of Algoma alerting them to a number of properties that the church may no longer wish to own. Souter says they are working with the interested parties on solutions.
“People are very passionate about built heritage,” says Souter. “It’s something we have to navigate and keep people passionate about but rationally work through the guidelines set out for us.”
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