Strong Community Interest Shown at Heritage Conservation District Forum

Diane Chin, President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO), Cobourg and East Northumberland Region, joined the Millbrook and Cavan Historical Society (MCHS) and about 50 interested community members on May 25 at the Millbrook Legion Hall for an information session and lively Q&A.  Diane, along with Meredith Kennedy from Royal Service Real Estate in Millbrook were the featured speakers invited to discuss the pros and cons of creating a Heritage Conservation District in Millbrook.

According to March 2020 records on the Ontario Heritage Trust website, there are 134 Heritage Conservation Districts in the province.  Within those HCDs there are approximately 23,000 properties.  There are 53 Ontario municipalities that have at least one HCD in full force under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Diane Chin described the attraction of Heritage Conservation Districts as tourist destinations, positively impacting local business and bringing more visitors, who potentially might become residents, to the area.  By increasing the visibility of a municipality, Diane noted, businesses and light manufacturing see potential new investment opportunities.

A key benefit of a HCD to a community is ensuring that future developments, renovations, and restorations within the designated area are complementary to the character of the district.  HCD status can be an effective tool to prevent the demolition or neglect of significant buildings and for guiding the process of new construction and/or renovations to ensure there are not changes that are considered out of character by the community, as seen from the street.  The HCD does not, typically, impact the interior of a building, nor the uses of the building.  Zoning is a different set of by-laws and permits.  New development is not discouraged, but rather is aligned with the uniqueness of the designated district.

Currently, Cavan Monaghan has a number of guidelines for streetscape revitalization and heritage.  Karen Ellis, Director of Planning, was present at the forum, and provided some examples of the types of guidelines that the Township encourages property owners to follow when considering renovating or updating properties in the downtown area.  While developers and property owners in the downtown area are strongly encouraged to adhere to the streetscape recommendations, the community must rely on the good will of these players to act in its best interest.  Creating a Heritage Conservation District creates an enforceable set of by-laws and takes good will out of the equation, putting the preservation of the unique sense of place before the profits of developers or absentee landlords.

The Cabbagetown Heritage Conservation District Committee, based in Toronto, reports that studies suggest that heritage status tends to accelerate property value increases and sustains values during recessions.  Real Estate broker Meredith Kennedy, has experience in both Millbrook and Port Hope.  Port Hope has three HCDs in their downtown area.  Meredith provided some insights into residential property buyer perspectives regarding heritage designations, suggesting that buyers who love heritage homes absolutely love them and are willing to pay for the character and unique history of the building. People who don’t will “quickly run the other way.”

In her presentation, Diane Chin explained that with recent changes in provincial legislation, heritage protections have become more difficult to obtain.  As an example she noted that a building must now meet two of the nine criteria for heritage designation, rather than just one under the former rules. The silver lining, according to Diane, is that the current government has not yet changed how a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) is created.  This, she says, gives communities a window to act before there are potential changes to the Ontario Heritage Act that might hinder the protection of an area such as downtown Millbrook or Anne Street. Diane stated she had it on good authority from staff inside the provincial government that there are further changes to heritage protections in the works, ostensibly to make way for housing.

The good news for Millbrook is that the Official Plan allows for the creation of Heritage Conservation Districts in Millbrook. The more challenging news is that, according to Diane, the time for action is now.  She made it clear that it is essential that the community, as a whole, express its support for the initiative; one small organization is not enough.  In addition, moving forward will require support from a township that is already facing resource constraints at staff and budget levels.  A number of interested community members asked thoughtful questions of Director of Planning Karen Ellis, as well as guests Diane Chin and Meredith Kennedy.  Mayor Graham and Deputy Mayor Huntley were present at the meeting, as were members of the Revitalization and Heritage Advisory Committee of Council.

MCHS now plans to develop and send out a survey to its membership to gauge interest, and will investigate ways to reach out to the broader community.  For more information about Heritage Conservation Districts, residents are encouraged to contact Diane Chin at the Cobourg and East Northumberland Region ACO.  For questions related to Cavan Monaghan Township’s Official Plan, please reach out to Karen Ellis, Director of Planning.  For those in the audience on May 25, there was a palpable sense of urgency from Diane Chin, suggesting it’s now or never for HCDs in Millbrook.

By Rachel Finnie

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