City breaking its own heritage rules: councillor

Decision on property owner’s windows latest rejection of committee recommendation

Daniel MacEachern
Published on July 30, 2014
St. John’s city council Monday rejected the city’s heritage committee’s recommendation that the owner of 133 Gower Street (the house on the right) should replace the building’s windows with ones that match other houses in the area, instead of ones that are similar to the windows already in place, which is what the owner prefers. The co-chairman of the advisory committee say making exceptions to the city’s heritage guidelines weaken the city’s ability to protect St. John’s heritage. — Photo by Daniel MacEachern/The Telegram

Allowing exceptions to St. John’s heritage guidelines will make it harder to preserve the city’s history, say the heritage committee chairmen.

Committee co-chairman Coun. Sandy Hickman — following council’s decision Monday to allow a Gower Street homeowner to replace and  install windows that are different from what the heritage guidelines would allow — said Tuesday the city is breaking its own rules.

“I’m not sure that all councillors understand the gravity of the heritage of the city. That it is something that’s different from whether or not you put a 10-storey building in one area or allow a certain type of siding on Elizabeth Avenue or something different in Cowan Heights,” said Hickman.

“There is a responsibility for us as city council of this city to ensure that we maintain the character.”

It’s the latest recommendation of the heritage committee to be rejected — in March, council rejected heritage status for two downtown Salvation Army buildings scheduled for demolition and rebuilding, and earlier this year, council found itself debating whether it could allow an exception for windows at a local convent that didn’t fit guidelines, but were easier for older nuns to open.

Coun. Dave Lane, the heritage committee’s other chairman, said allowing exceptions piecemeal makes it more difficult for the city to enforce the guidelines it has established to preserve the city’s heritage, and allowing exceptions weakens the overall purpose.

“We’re trying to advocate on behalf of the overall principles of retaining a heritage district in our city,” he said, adding that making ad-hoc exceptions will only prompt more people in the future to appeal the city’s decisions.

“Every time we make a one-off allowance, it makes the regulations weaker, and it reduces the value of the regulations we have, and it reduces the effectiveness of them.”

But Coun. Jonathan Galgay, who spoke Monday night in favour of allowing the Gower Street property owner to replace the windows with identical ones, rather than installing costlier committee-approved ones, said councillors are elected to make those decisions.

“They are there to shape policy,” said Galgay. “Sometimes policy has been written in the past by previous councils, like any type of government, and they have a role to ensure there’s a balance. What I do, any time I get a call, I review it. I ask questions and I’ll make a decision based on the best interests of the resident and the city.”

In this case, the committee’s recommendation would have proven much costlier to the owner, said Galgay, who added as it’s a rental property, he feared the cost would have been off-loaded onto the tenant.

And rather than getting too bogged down in targeting the siding or windows of someone who’s maintaining his or her property, he said, the heritage committee should first target areas and properties that aren’t being looked after.

“You drive around the downtown, and you can see homes that are in deplorable condition,” he said.

“For a heritage committee to be in place, and to be targeting people who are trying to do good on a property versus other property owners who just have disregard to any type of maintenance on a home, I have a problem with that.”

Hickman says the city should look at providing a small fund that heritage property owners could draw on if — as in this case — the guidelines would require the owner to spend more money on renovations than he or she is planning.

That costs money, argued Galgay.

“We can’t even regulate our own snowclearing, let alone develop a fund to offset some costs associated with private dwelling,” he said. “It sounds good, but where are you going to come up with the money?”

Twitter: @TelegramDaniel