Paying the Price for Heritage Preservation

In a 5 to 3 vote, Council recently approved a legal agreement with the Wauchopes to avoid proposed registration of their home on Innisfil Beach Road under the Ontario Heritage Act. Registration has the effect of requiring 60 days notice before any demolition but is a step less than designation as an historic property, which prevents demolition.

Although the Wauchopes said they may live in the house indefinitely, they wanted to ensure that they could realize the full commercial value of their property at any time in the future. Prior to the recession, an offer of about $1.6 million was reportedly made. Innisfil Beach Road is the town’s commercial core and the area immediately north is also slated for further residential development. As Councillor Lougheed observed weeks ago, “The historical value is the house, but the economic value is the property. The value between those two things is fairly significant in terms of Innisfil Beach Road.

The agreement provides:

  • the same 60 day notice period as the Heritage Act prior to seeking any demolition permit or making any preparation for demolition
  • in the case of a proposed sale, the Town has a minimum of 14 days to assess the feasibility of purchasing and relocating the house
  • the Town has the option of buying the property for $1 more than an existing offer
  • the Town may negotiate directly with a third party for the purchase and relocation of the house
  • the Town agrees not to register the property unless it is in ‘imminent danger’; a new Official Plan is passed; or the owners breach the agreement
  • in the event of a dispute, the only recourse is to the courts

This agreement, which cost the town $3,000 in legal fees, raises several questions:

  • Is it a good deal for the town?
  • Is it fair to owners of other registered properties who did not have the option to negotiate their own deal?
  • Does this set a precedent for other properties of historical significance?
  • Most importantly, does it improve the chances of preservation of this property?

The issue was always about money, and who among the stakeholders – the current owner, the town or the developer – would pay the biggest share for any future preservation.  This agreement bypassed the Ontario Heritage Act to ensure that you and I will contribute the most. A proposed sale sets in motion specific steps:

A structural assessment of the house (I assume at the Town’s expense) to determine if it can be moved. If so, the town can enter into negotiations with the potential purchaser of the property (i.e., a developer, not the Wauchopes) to buy and relocate the house. (again, at Town expense?) The agreement leaves the Town with no negotiating room but gives the developer greater leverage to extract concessions in exchange for cooperating in the preservation. How much are we willing to pay for the house and its relocation? What concessions might a developer demand?  I can think of a few possibilities related to development charges, utility services, and mixed uses or density.

Let’s assume the house cannot be moved or that the developer’s asking price for the house is too steep. Can it be registered under the Heritage Act prior to a sale? No.  Suppose the sale is concluded, the Wauchopes walk away with their nest egg, and the developer applies for a demolition permit. Is 60 days notice required? No. The agreement is only with the Wauchopes while they own the property.  What if, in the process of these 3 way negotiations, a disagreement arises? Then the parties head to court, the lawyers have a field day and the property sits idle for a protracted period.

What other options are there? The Town can outbid the developer by $1 for the whole property – presumably for an amount exceeding $1 million. As the owner of the whole property, can the Town subdivide the property surrounding the house and sell off parcels separately for commercial development to recoup the investment? How will this affect neighbouring commercial properties and their existing plans? Should the Town retain the house and frontage on Innisfil Beach Road for a public square or other community uses?

How does this compare with the now discarded option under the Ontario Heritage Act? Registration of the property would have given the Town some negotiating leverage with a potential developer.  The Town might have negotiated with a developer to share the cost of a building inspection and relocation during the 60 day period required before any demolition, with the municipal option for historic designation remaining in the background. The onus would have rested with the Wauchopes to negotiate a commitment from prospective buyers to relocate the home in order to maximize their financial benefit (as well as the developer’s).  If the building could not be moved at reasonable expense, perhaps the Town could have negotiated a land swap with the developer for the parcel of land on which the home sits.

I’d like to be an optimist about this. Will all parties come together with a sense of goodwill and reach a reasonable resolution that results in historic preservation at an affordable price? Or like so many other instances, will private profit be the decisive factor that trumps all other considerations of public interest?

In the press:

Heritage contract approved, Innisfil Journal

Wauchope House staying off heritage register, Innisfil Scope

Published previously:

Heritage, Property and Preservation