Meaford's council has given the green-light to proceed to the next phase in establishing a Heritage Conservation District aimed at protecting historically significant buildings as well as the character of the downtown core.
While many have expressed concern about the potential implications of such a move, it doesn't need to be a burden for property owners within the district so long as Meaford's council ensures that public consultation is sought, and that the guidelines established achieve the desired preservation of our historic structures without becoming too restrictive for property owners.
The consultants who were retained to conduct the initial study and to establish a proposed boundary for a Heritage Conservation District made it clear to council that the it is up to councillors themselves to decide how restrictive any guidelines for the district will be.
This will be the key to gaining acceptance from property owners, and councillors will need to be willing to address the concerns of those property owners before any guidelines are set in stone.
Equally important will be for concerned residents to ensure that they make their views known to councillors. At the public meeting held this week to discuss the consultant's report, and to hear how such a district is established, members of the public were offered an opportunity to express support for, or opposition to the proposal. A representative of local organization “Heritage Meaford” took the opportunity to express support, however there was no opposition expressed.
If there are concerns, council needs to hear them in order to ensure that whatever decisions they make will be in keeping with the desires of the community.
The notion that a heritage district strips away property rights is only a concern if residents don't engage in the process, and by doing so protect the rights that they fear will be lost.
Economic opportunities in small towns like Meaford are limited. We have no significant manufacturing industry, therefore our primary economic drivers are agriculture, retail, and tourism.
Meaford's appeal as a tourist destination is in part due to our waterfront location, and also because of our historic buildings and homes. Those looking for a weekend getaway or a day trip are often drawn to quaint small towns with well kept streets and historic buildings.
I was reminded of this over the last week when I had out of province visitors, and while taking a drive around town, those guests expressed over and over how impressed they were with the look and feel of the downtown core, the number of historic buildings and homes, and the community spirit expressed with the numerous scarecrows that had been popping up around the community.
If you want economic development, a good place to start is with your strengths, and the character and history in Meaford is a strength, and it should be protected.
Should owners of historic buildings be told what kinds of paints, or windows, or doors they can use? Absolutely not, and there was no suggestion during the public meeting that anyone on council has an appetite for creating such restrictions.
On the other hand, should a beautiful historic building be allowed to be demolished to make way for a fast food restaurant or a shopping centre? Not necessarily, and that is why guidelines should be established – not to control what type of window a property owner can install when doing a renovation.
At this time there is no protection in place for our historic structures, and demolition permits are very easy to obtain. Establishing a Heritage Conservation District won't mean that an old building will never be renovated or torn down, it just ensures that some checks and balances are in place to ensure that if a renovation of a structure is desired by the property owner, or if a historic building is to be demolished that the character of the community – and by extension, the opportunities to grow one of our primary economic drivers – is preserved.