Some councillors concerned about program investment amid potential belt tightening
After a pointed discussion about affordability and priorities, committee of the whole supported a $100,000 incentive program for heritage property improvements Thursday by a 7-5 margin.
Since 2011, the County’s heritage advisory committee has considered developing a program that would encourage heritage conservation through incentives for designated property owners to improve their heritage assets. Last year, the committee finalized an annual grant program, which they presented to councillors during the 2018 budget process. At that time, council set aside $100,000 to be used during this calendar year from its Community Improvement Plan (CIP) to fund the program.
A grant application process would follow with a Nov. 30 deadline and the committee would make recommendations to staff based on how a project met set criteria including conformity to designation bylaws or the Heritage Conservation District Plan, and design guidelines set out by the Province and by Parks Canada. Grants would be available in six categories for amounts not to exceed 50 per cent of project cost.
The categories include building facade improvement (up to $5,000 for one-storey facades up to 10 metres in length of $7,500 for two storey facades or those over 10 metres in length); rear or side-wall facade work (to a maximum of $5,000 per side or rear wall and $7,500 total); structural improvement (up to $5,000), restoration of exteriors, foundations and roof structures (up to $4,000), interior rehabilitation ($4,000 per unit, to a maximum of $8,000), landscaping and property improvements (to a maximum of $2,000), and signage improvement (to a maximum of $1,500, with subsequent or replacement signage to a maximum of $1,000).
Much of the discussion at Shire Hall focused on the affordability and suitability of the project. Roy Pennell said he liked the concept, but wasn’t comfortable spending at this time.
“This Friday we have a new provincial government being formed. I’m looking ahead a bit into the future and there may or may not be a lot of things that come forward that we as representatives of taxpayers are going to be responsible for,” he said. “I think this should be put off until the establishment of the new council The government will have come into effect and we’ll have an opportunity to see where funds are available. I don’t feel comfortable at this stage going ahead.”
Brad Nieman was also opposed to the grants at this time.
“I won’t be supporting this,” he said. “The reason I won’t be is for me, there’s essentials of life that you need — food, water, shelter and health care.”
Nieman recalled how council wouldn’t spend $65,000 for the University Kingston Hospitals Foundation, which he said amounted to $4 a trip for local residents who need acute health-care services and felt if it couldn’t make that investment, it shouldn’t make this one.
“Heritage is important, but to give $100,000 to owners of those places to fix them up a bit, for me, the priority is not right. We’re not looking after the essentials, but we’re going to fix up heritage buildings. If you don’t have the essentials in life, nobody is going to come around and look at those buildings anyway.”
Dianne O’Brien said she felt the program was “too rich for us” and expressed a desire to defer it. She added she didn’t think council should be spending money on properties it doesn’t own.
Gord Fox agreed, noting that council still has its agricultural assistance program to roll out, it is supporting the new Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital build with $4.5 million, and it has water infrastructure and “miles of roads” that need to be fixed. He said he shares concerns about austerity measures at the provincial level.
“As a muncipality and as a council, we really need to think about how we spend money.”
Bill Roberts spoke about the importance of council setting clear priorities and said if heritage is really important to the municipality, this is a mechanism to offer that.
“Generally speaking, when you can it’s good to have a carrot and a stick. So far, we only have a heritage stick and that hasn’t been optimal at times. Now, we’ll have a heritage carrot.”
Treat Hull supported offering that carrot and stated that while health care and shelter should take precedence, $100,000 is hardly proportionate in scale to those investments. He said he’d support the fund because there is value in heritage and he recognizes designation is a burden for property owners.
“If we lose heritage buildings, when they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said. “The community benefits (by preservation) but the homeowner pays.”
Hull explained they face higher insurance rates, are restricted in the amount of renovating and upgrades they do, and the cost of those renovations might be higher. Resale for those properties can also be tricky. A token amount of support might lessen the pain and encourage others to move forward with designation.
“This is a symbolic amount of money compared to the heritage needs and the size of grants is quite modest. We’re putting our money where our mouth has been for a long time.”
Hull conceded the fears about belt-tightening are “potentially accurate” but he said he didn’t feel that should stop decision making now. He also said councillors don’t have to give out $100,000, unless they feel it is warranted.
Steve Ferguson, council’s representative on the heritage committee, agreed that not every application will be accepted under the very specific criteria established. He also felt the grant meets council’s strategic goals.
“Heritage and heritage preservation is one of the things that draws people to visit Prince Edward County and invest in Prince Edward County — and for some, it’s the main reason they look to buy properties here.
Chief administrative officer James Hepburn told the committee the budgeted allocation of $100,000 from the CIP reserve comes from activities like the sale of 72 King Street and the intent of putting the money into that reserve was to use it for this sort of program.
Ultimately, committee of the whole approved establishing the fund, adding provisos that applicants have comprehensive insurance and submit to a pre-payment inspection by heritage advisory committee members and staff. Councillors Nieman, Maynard, O’Brien, Pennell, and David Harrison voted against.