While investigating the whereabouts of a client’s heritage grant I discovered that with no advanced warning or announcement the Region of Niagara had quietly eliminated its heritage grant program. Apparently not to be out done, so too did the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
For those who may not be familiar with this program, it offset the high costs of maintaining or restoring historical elements of a designated (under Part IV or V) property by a maximum amount of $10,000 equally shared by the town and region via application subject to approval by both the municipal heritage committee and town council.
Now let’s examine those costs using the example of replacing a front door. For those of us who live in a non-designated property, but wish to invest in a statement, it may run to $10,000 to $12,000. For the owner of a designated property to have a custom-made, historically accurate reproduction created and installed (as is required on a designated dwelling) that cost can easily push into the $30,000 range.
So, you say, why should we care? After all, the owners of designated properties made the choice to undertake the additional costs of maintaining a piece of history.
And there-in lies the rub … each heritage building is an irreplaceable piece of our shared history.
Consider what makes our town unique. Why is it that those of us who “came from away” moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake and further, why do all the tourists (who heavily contribute to our local economy) visit us?
In large part it’s the chance of immersion in a unique community wherein history and heritage is alive, well and celebrated.
But now, both tiers of our municipal government (town and region) have ignored this reality and abandoned an important tool in the maintenance of our shared heritage.
Of course, the region has indicated it would participate in the provincial Heritage Property Tax Relief program with any of the lower-tier municipal governments who develop an address within the parameters of this program.
What the region fails to state is that this piece of legislation, passed in 2001, is cumbersome, overly complicated, requiring upfront development investment and ongoing operating costs – the latter two of which come to roost in the annual budget of the local municipality.
Given these facts, is it really a surprise that very few of Ontario’s municipalities have engaged with this program?
Here in the Niagara Region only Fort Erie (with nine designated properties) and Port Colborne (less than 20) are enrolled.
Now, if I were a cynical man, I’d suspect this decision by the region was predicated on the belief that this trend would hold true and their costs in supporting heritage would actually drop significantly.
However, this decision raises a whole series of questions in my mind, especially during an election year.
First, on a local level, how could our elected councillors not have made this a cause celebre when the adverse ramifications on NOTL’s economy are clear and present?
Second, on a regional level, why did our representatives (elected and appointed) not fight or appeal this decision at every level including statements to all media publications?
Third, given the legislative direction over the last four years (ie. the recent affordable housing initiative) demonstrates the Ford government is not a friend of heritage, though the Tories do claim to be fans of a lean bureaucracy.
Why then would they not repeal the 2001 legislation and just create a separate tax category (similar to agricultural) for heritage-designated properties?
Unfortunately, simple, efficient and impactful solutions are not what our elected governments are known for.
Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.