A Reality Check for Cookstown

A one-day seminar was held in Cookstown over the weekend to present information about the Cookstown Heritage Conservation District, which encompasses most of the village. It was well attended by Innisfil residents, residents of other towns, Council members and the local Member of Parliament.

The experience of other existing heritage districts in Ontario was meant to demonstrate what is possible, and emphasized that the heritage designation is meant to “encourage”, not “prohibit”.

The first speaker, Bruce Corley, is a heritage consultant and an international expert in “documentation and measured drawings of historic buildings”. He began with an initial assessment of Cookstown as having “good bones” capable of supporting positive improvements and discussed the commercial opportunities that may be available from different types such as residents, commuters and tourists.

Before long, Mr. Corley was presenting a blunt, and at times, alarming description of the real-world forces shaping urban communities. Cookstown, he said, would face the greatest change since being designated a ‘police village’ in 1901. It “cannot be stopped, only directed.” This farming community is about to be “transformed into something unrecognizable”.

He described some developers whose sole activity is identifying and exploiting property rezoning opportunities for profit. (“That’s where the money is”) He emphasized the overwhelming finances and professional services available to developers and warned, “They will get their way”. In his view, this change is “beyond control, but not guidance.” An essential goal of a heritage conservation district is to “keep the ‘essence’ of your community”, not try to statically preserve it like a living museum.

Municipalities waver in the face of drastic change because they are under great pressure to “grow tax revenue”. Mr. Corley noted it is “up to Council to establish the parameters of the game”. This is evident now in current changes taking place. Not far from the presentation venue, new homes are being built according to current practice – bulky suburban homes on small lots. But within the Heritage District, infill construction will fall within the heritage conservation guidelines regarding size, lot coverage, design and exterior materials.

Participants heard from Jeff Harvey, a contractor and professional carpenter who illustrated how a Cookstown residence was lovingly and creatively renovated and enlarged while preserving original interior and exterior design features that make the building special. (The work was performed before Cookstown’s heritage designation.)

Information was provided about Innisfil’s Community Improvement Plan (CIP), which provides grants to owners, tenants and residents for property improvements. These include cash rebates for landscaping and driveways, façade and building improvements, signage, building permit fee rebate, planning application fee rebate, accessibility improvement, and building code compliance. The Town of Innisfil expects to add its own investment in a renewed streetscape for Cookstown.

Perhaps, the most important comment was offered by Mr. Corley as he discussed early Ontario land grants and their subsequent value to later generations. He observed that the real value of a place is not in the land but in the people. Cookstown residents, property owners and Innisfil politicians have some tools and incentives to preserve the “essence” of Cookstown. It’s up to them to use them wisely for a vibrant and promising future.