Cookstown: If not Heritage Conservation, then what?

Some of you may have seen a letter to the local press denouncing Town Council for approving “in principle” a plan to designate a Heritage Conservation District in Cookstown.  (Fighting to preserve civil rights in Innisfil)

A partial survey of 103 households organized by opponents showed 70 households, about 36% of the 224 proposed for heritage designation, are against a plan to set standards for preservation of the historic nature of Cookstown, especially as it may apply to their private residences. The 134 people who signed a similar petition represent possibly a little more than 10% of households or possibly a little less than 10% of Cookstown’s adult population. The majority has been notably silent on the issue.

That’s not to say that the petitioners’ concern over property rights isn’t genuine. Nor do I doubt that they do care very much for their properties. They’re being asked to give up something without any immediate or tangible reward. How are property rights affected?:

“The permit application process is the principal mechanism for implementing a district plan. This allows a municipality to exert control over development and other applications to ensure that they will have a beneficial rather than detrimental effect on the character and heritage attributes of the district… The Ontario Heritage Act gives municipalities the power to decide whether alteration, new construction or demolition can take place within a designated HCD… Property owners do not need a permit for carrying out “minor alterations” as described in the district plan or for interior alterations …”
(Heritage Conservation Districts, Ontario Heritage Toolkit, Ontario Ministry of Culture)

Evidently the objectors don’t trust the Town to act in good faith and don’t trust their neighbours to manage a Heritage District reasonably. So they’ve adopted more of a “show me the money” stance. Opponents to the plan say the Town should pave roads and build sidewalks instead. A local realtor says, “We don’t have historic properties in Cookstown, we have neglected properties.”  Who’s fault is that? How can it be remedied? And how does new paving and sidewalks help solve that problem? How would a deserted and derelict main street with spanking new sidewalks improve life in Cookstown?

I wish it was that easy. Heritage Conservation designation is an extended commitment to direct both public and private money at preserving assets and stimulating commercial activity in Cookstown. It encompasses the whole area as a unified ‘project’ for revitalization rather than what might happen intermittently and piecemeal – or not at all.  “In principle” means that the details of the plan still need to be agreed upon with local residents who would also participate on an HCD committee.

The question is whether the Cookstown community can come together on a scheme to revitalize and renew a historic and once-vibrant neighbourhood. That’s the ‘greater good’ that, if as successful as other Heritage Districts, should return some private benefit to residents as well.

It seems disingenuous to slam the Town by saying “basic care and safety of our community has been overlooked by our township for decades” and then loudly demand that the Town do nothing. The status quo is obviously not working so Town Council can justifiably discount that option.

Opponents of a Heritage Conservation District would achieve more by articulating a workable alternative to attain similar positive objectives. This is hardly an attack on everyone’s civil rights. That’s just unhelpful emotional rhetoric.

No, I am not a resident of Cookstown. Yes, I am a resident of Innisfil. For more than a decade I have heard periodic complaints about Cookstown being ignored. Lately there has been an effort to address some of Cookstown’s long-standing problems.  New water infrastructure has opened the way for some new development and tax revenues. Street improvements are planned. Now the Heritage Conservation District is intended to preserve the village’s distinctive character as new development comes forward. Change will occur. But is Cookstown ready for it? It bills itself as “the coziest corner in Innisfil”, but for how long?

The Heritage Conservation District proposal comes before Innisfil Council on April 2 at 7:15 pm.

Cookstown Heritage Conservation District / Innisfil