What does a Heritage Conservation District mean to property owners?

by Edith Cody-Rice

Menzies House
Almonte’s Menzies House 1850, a designated house.

Overall, Heritage Conservation Districts (HDCs)  are distinct groupings whose character derives from the natural and cultural resources within its boundaries. Beyond its cultural and built heritage, HCDs are also characterized by landscapes, the diversity of the lifestyles and the traditions of the people; the community forms an important element of the district. The designations of HCDs by municipal councils allow many of these municipalities to maintain a strong sense of place and sense of identity.

Since 2005, the Ontario Heritage Act has stipulated that all new Heritage Conservation Districts (HCDs) must be guided by district plans. A district plan is a comprehensive summary of the geographical boundaries of an HCD, its overall character, heritage attributes and its relationship with municipal land-use planning policies. A district plan may begin by defining why an HCD is significant. It also provides guidelines on how best to conserve and protect heritage attributes, and to guide future changes in the district – for example, a district plan will illustrate approaches to alteration and infill. Overall, the policies and guidelines contained in a district plan will help to protect and enhance the area’s special character.

Municipal incentive programs vary. Depending on the municipality, there may be grants, loans and/or tax relief available that function as incentives to encourage property owners to designate their buildings and sites. As a means to support the conservation of the property, some municipalities will offer tax rebate programs for properties protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. Other incentives provided by the municipality may include matching grant programs that benefit property owners in such a way that they share the cost of repair and conservation with the municipality.

Heritage Conservation District (HCD) designation applies only to the exterior of buildings and the surrounding property. A property owner requires a heritage permit (approved by council) before they can undertake any major exterior alterations or demolitions, or any other works likely to have a substantial impact on the heritage attributes of the property. As such, it is up to the owner to notify council of the intended changes to be made. Council can take no longer than 90 days to make its decision. Each municipality may develop its own process for granting heritage permits.

The  owner of a property held within an HCD  must take into consideration the existing built form and character of the neighborhood with respect to its form, materials, height and massing in design proposals. A property owner must also avoid removing original building details, mature trees and other character-defining elements of the property.

A study for the The International Journal of Heritage Studies by Robert Shipley of the University of Waterloo found that an historic designation has no  negative impact on the values of properties subject to it. The actual selling price of subject properties was used to establish their value history trends, which were then compared to ambient market trends within the same communities. Almost 3,000 properties in 24 communities were investigated, in what is believed to be the largest study of its kind ever undertaken in North America. It was found that heritage designation could not be shown to have a negative impact. In fact there appears to be a distinct and generally robust market in designated heritage properties. They generally perform well in the market with 74% doing average or better than average. The rate of sale among designated properties is as good or better than the ambient market trends and the values of heritage properties tend to be resistant to down-turns in the general market.

Once designated any planned changes to a property (usually just the building exterior) must be reviewed by the local architectural advisory committee, who can advise the local council which makes the final decision. In the end, if the owner of a designated property decides to demolish the structure there is a waiting period of 108 days.

Sources:
Ontario Heritage Trust website
Shipley, Robert, Heritage Designation and Property Values: Is there an Effect? The International Journal of Heritage Studies, Volume 6 Number 1, 2000.