Councillors wrangle over heritage designation

After an hour-long discussion, Centre Wellington council ultimately decided to defer a decision on the demolition of one of the last log homes in downtown Fergus.

Councillors were forced to weigh the matter of heritage versus the rights of property owners.

Applicants Ben and Henriette Gansekoele applied for a demolition permit for their property at 240 Provost Lane in Fergus.

Township planner Marina Iglesias and the Centre Wellington Heritage Committee recommended that council deny the request and state an intention to designate the property as having cultural value under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The township received the demolition permit application in September. The review period for consideration exceeded the 60-days required under  the Ontario Heritage Act as a result of both the 2014 municipal election and a lack of council meetings since the demolition was requested.

In considering the request to demolish a building that is on the municipal heritage register, council is required to consult with the township’s heritage committee.

Though the property is listed on Centre Wellington’s registry, there is no official heritage designation on the property. The building was not originally located on the Provost Lane property – it was moved there in the 1930s.

A letter from the Gansekoeles stated that when the property was purchased, the couple was certain the residence was a log house and restoration of a log cabin was a lifelong dream.

“We were unable to look at the condition of the structure when we put the offer in, but we decided to take the chance anyhow assuming that if it could not be restored, we would clean up the lot and rebuild,” the Gansekoeles wrote.

Upon further inspection after the purchase, the couple came to believe the building could not be restored.

“There are a lot of logs missing, the walls are bowed and the ceiling is falling in and there are cracks in the foundation. There is also a lot of dry rot. The logs are in such a bad state that to try to restore it would be completely unsafe.”

The letter further noted, “Log houses were not built to last forever.”

One estimate from Keith’s Contracting to restore the 1,000 square foot home is $330,000.

“I think it is very unfair for the heritage [committee] to want this home restored after we purchased it. In my opinion they had 100 years to put that status on the house,” stated the Gansekoele letter.

“I did tell the [heritage committee] that they are welcome to the home and to take it to the museum if they think it can be restored. They turned that down because they said they don’t have the budget for restoration.”

Iglesias stated that since the property is on the township’s heritage register as non-designated, adding such a designation would provide council additional time to consider the matter.

She explained preliminary research on the property indicated potentially significant heritage value. At that point a heritage consultant was brought in to evaluate the property.

Iglesias said staff and the heritage committee agree with the consultant’s report, which states the property is worthy of designation under the Ontario Heritage Act.

She also noted the only legal means to stop an imminent demolition request for a listed heritage property is for council to state its intention to designate the property under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Councillor Mary Lloyd asked why the property was not officially designated before.

“When the list was created this house would have been recognized as one of the original log homes, why would designation not have been pursued at that time … if in fact we knew it was a log home.”

Iglesias said 600 properties were added to the list when it was created, but not every one was looked at in-depth. She noted additional properties would have had more thorough reviews as time and resources allowed.

Councillor Steven VanLeeuwen agreed with the need to preserve heritage within the community, “But once you step into the home, to me it looks unsaveable.”

Iglesias argued, “there is virtually nothing that is not repairable.” She added almost any heritage building can be repaired with the proper resources and expertise.

In this case, Iglesias wanted to bring in a structural engineer qualified in heritage buildings to provide information on how much of the building can be salvaged and/or stabilized in order to be restored.

Councillor Fred Morris said owners of rural 19th century properties have come before previous councils seeking demolition permits – which council did allow.

“What is unique about this property that sets it apart from ones where demolition was allowed?” Morris asked.

Iglesias responded the home is the last remaining log cabin that dates back to the settlement era of Fergus.

“If we lose this one, we probably don’t have any others to fall back on to provide that example,” she said.

Councillor Stephen Kitras asked if the property was in imminent danger of demolition.

Iglesias said if council makes no decision, the applicant can still pursue the demolition permit. If the permit is withheld, the applicant can appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.

But Iglesias clarified that demolition permits can only be withheld for a limited number of reasons – heritage designation being one of them.

“If it is not designated there really is no reason to withhold the permit,” she said.

VanLeeuwen asked whether the township had not already exceeded the mandatory time limit to respond to the demolition permit.

Morris asked whether this could create a precedent.

Iglesias considered heritage designation as only the start of the process, followed by additional meetings with the owners and heritage consultants to determine what would be satisfactory and capture all the heritage attributes.

“It doesn’t stop the alteration of aspects we do not feel are significant,” said Iglesias.

She said the situation is unique because the property itself has a unique history, as does the building.

Mayor Kelly Linton said “we all recognize it is important to protect heritage.”

But he agreed the cost factor to the township and/or the owners needed to be recognized.

Representing the proponents was Eric Van Grootheest.

He said the Gansekoeles were excited with the potential opportunity of restoring and rebuilding the structure and creating a bed and breakfast.

But upon investigation, “It was a disaster … it’s not repairable,” Van Grootheest said, alluding to the contractor’s repair estimate of close to $350,000.

“The only thing holding the building together are the boards nailed to the sides when it was originally moved.”

He said the owners cannot afford to spend the original purchase price plus another $350,000 – “essentially $500,000 for a house that is not going to be original and only worth half of the money they would be putting into it.”

Van Grootheest said the owners have been patient and are still willing to work with the township and museum/heritage groups.

“But it is time to move on,” Van Grootheest said. He added the owners are more than willing to donate the structure or what can be salvaged.

Lloyd said many residents have expressed concern at the potential loss when there may be other options available, she said.

Councillor Kirk McElwain asked whether the heritage consultant looked at simply the historical value or the ability to repair it.

Linton said, “The worst case scenario would be to designate this building and then have it sit another 100 years.”

As council tried for more time, VanLeeuwen said he feared if council pushed for the designation – “what happens if there is nothing left to save?”

Morris said he was ready to defer the request to give staff time to work with the owners to come up with a solution.

“There is a question on my mind that I desperately want an answer to. Have we passed the moment of practicality?” Morris asked.

He added, “When I hear 50% of the logs are rotted and no longer salvageable and that amount could be 60% to 70% … I’m starting to think we don’t have a heritage house … we’d have a replica at best.

“If time, weather and conditions have destroyed much of what was once the log cabin … then we are just going to reproduce something that used to be.”

Morris concluded, “If most of that house is rotten through and through … it is not a heritage house any more, it is a pile of decaying lumber.”

Council eventually decided to defer the matter to the next meeting for staff and owners to come up with options and potential timeframes.