In last week’s column I wrote about the Secord-Paxton house in St. Davids. This historic house, now owned by a developer, is being allowed to slowly deteriorate to a point where it will be impossible to restore.
I further suggested that this was a perfect example of “demolition by neglect,” which should be addressed by the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
This comment elicited several emails from readers, both expressing their concern and also asking if I might expand on the issue of demolition by neglect.
Perhaps the most concise definition I’ve found comes from the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.: “Demolition by neglect is the term used to describe a situation in which a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair. Property owners may use this kind of long-term neglect to circumvent historic preservation regulations.”
This practice is all too common across North America and has resulted in the loss of many, many historic buildings when the property owner cannot see the value in preservation or, more often, when the owner wishes to tear down a historic building and redevelop the property but is blocked from doing so by governmental heritage oversight.
In 2005, Ontario amended the Ontario Heritage Act to prevent the demolition of heritage buildings (encompassing demolition by neglect) in Section 34.1 of the act. The government went further in Section 35.3 to provide authority to municipalities to pass bylaws that prevent demolition by neglect.
Finally, in Section 69.3, legislators put teeth into the authority by outlining a maximum fine of $1 million should an individual or directors of a corporation be found guilty of actions that lead to demolition by neglect.
These amendments provided the framework upon which individual municipalities could develop enforceable bylaws that would bring this deplorable practice to an end.
Last year, I was informed by the town’s heritage adviser that Niagara-on-the-Lake had enacted such a bylaw in 2020. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate and read that bylaw (the town’s website is not very intuitive) to understand its scope and detail.
That said, assuming that all necessary parameters are in place, the legislation speaks only to heritage buildings (which I interpret as those with a designation). This leaves many historic structures with inadequate protection under the Building Codes Act and the town’s general property standards bylaw.
Yes, the municipality can, when one of these buildings is considered to meet the standards and is under probable and/or imminent threat, force designate (move to designate without the support and/or agreement of the property owner) a property,.
But this seems to be both unnecessarily cumbersome and fraught with legal challenges. It seems to me that England (Google “Historic England”) has a much better system.
Just off hand, I can think of half a dozen non-designated historic homes that are now well on the way to destruction; all of which could be considered demolition by neglect.