Heritage Conservation District – Still a hard sell with ‘conscripted’ property owners

Proposed downtown heritage assessment studyNot My Back Yard – Or My Front Yard, Either!

Almonte’s proposed Downtown Heritage Conservation District is proving to be a hard sell among some property owners in the designated area. An open house at the Old Town Hall, on Thursday evening, May 21, hosted by the Town as part of its “public consultations,” saw some heated comments on the topic, first from property owners toward the Town, and then between opposing factions of the citizenry, themselves. Clearly this is a “hot topic” that neither planners nor committee members have yet found a way of cooling off.

Some who spoke seemed to feel they had not been properly notified of meetings or events, and that there had been a failure, on the part of the Town, to approach, inform, and consult with them on the topic; they are after all, they observe, the people most closely affected by any changes this designation might bring. They also wondered why this process was being rushed; why there wasn’t more time to discuss and consider.

Others, strongly opposed to the district, were incensed at being ‘conscripted’ – forced against their will into joining a membership they had no interest in joining. Their only interest, and only question for the evening, was: How do I opt out?

Those in the ‘pro’ camp, perhaps predictably, did not feel excluded from the process, did not feel rushed, and did not resent their imposed inclusion in this special district.

That there is such an emotional divide, such a rent in the fabric – in the psyche – of the downtown area, may indeed, at least in part, be blamed upon the awkward beginnings and the subsequent suspicious manipulations and machinations of the Town’s [plotters &] planners. Justifications have sometimes been convoluted; answers too glib. But now that we approach the final hurdles, I think that no concerned citizen of town can be blamed for feeling just a tad nervous at the unholy hurry that is being demonstrated at the close.

Ever dealt with a door-to-door merchant, pressing a pen into your hand, shoving a contract under your nose, and urging you to “hurry-hurry-sign-now-the-offer-expires-at-midnight!”? Makes you want to dig your heels in, doesn’t it? Makes you want to say: “… Um … Well … Wait a minute! I think I’d better read this over just one more time.”

No one likes to be pushed, rushed, bullied, or conned into co-operation, and it’s time the Town recognized this. If people seem unduly wary, perhaps it’s with good reason. After all, throughout this entire process, its water-sucking snout swaying ponderously over the proceedings – not to mention over the Heritage District itself – has sat the Enerdu Elephant, that proverbial pachyderm in the room, or, in this case, the elephant in the town.

Under the circumstances, can people be blamed for feeling that they are somehow being taken? That this entire exercise is just part of some not-so-secret agenda? And, if this bylaw is passed and its new protections put in place and exercised, will the quaint and historic architectural treasures of the new Downtown Almonte Heritage Conservation District ever be able to fully rid themselves of that faint whiff of elephant dung?

Finding The Road

Even the nay-sayers must recognize, though, that however quickly or slowly it takes place, the proposal for a downtown heritage district is on the table and must be dealt with. So, can we find agreement? Come voting day, will we have a new bylaw, and a new perspective on our town? More importantly, will we be content with our decision, or will it ever fester?

The time to deal with these concerns is now – before the Council’s vote, before the papers are signed. We must find the road to resolution before the first hand is raised, before the first Aye! or Nay! is recorded. We must know what we’re doing, and we must do it with mindfulness. And above all, we must do it as a community.

Yet as a community, it is traditional to look to our leaders for guidance and elucidation; and here, in my considered opinion, lies the first major roadblock. Sadly, our mayor, council, planners and committees – in choosing to handle things as they have so far – may have inadvertently seasoned their administration, and this project, with a lasting bouquet of improbity. Whether the nidor of “something fishy” can ever be entirely expunged from this enterprise is a question that can only be answered by time – and time may be a commodity in too short supply for a positive answer.

I think that none of us is greatly shocked when we find international, national, or even provincial, governments participating in cover-ups, pushing through controversial projects, hiding from the public their true agendas in seeking to enact certain pieces of legislation, and refusing straight answers to straight questions from concerned citizens [eg, see Neil Carleton’s recent article “More than 51 days later …” posted elsewhere on this site, which discusses the Harper government’s refusal to answer the hard questions in re Bill C-51]. But when our local, small town government appears to be guilty of disingenuousness with its own citizens, when planners play politics and councilors cover up, the sting of betrayal is even more poignant, and even more personal.

Is it surprising, then, that when concerned downtown property owners ask what the new designation will mean for them and for their properties, they are less than assured when Town officials reply that “nothing whatever” is going to change in the downtown core: no one will have to do anything and life will go on just as it always has.

These same officials are quick to repudiate any suggestion that there might be hidden costs to the individuals residing in the area, or that there may be demands that properties be brought up to, or be restored to, “heritage standards.” There will be, they assure us, no ‘Heritage Police’ knocking on doors in the middle of the night to demand asphalt roofing tiles be replaced with slate.

But can they be trusted? What’s their track record on candor? On accommodation? Are these merely the answers that they need to give us today, so that their agendas can be met tomorrow? What if things suddenly change in the future? Or what if their research, before giving those answers, was inadequate? And how will the Town choose to deal with its citizens, in the case of a bylaw dispute?

This, at least, we already know – and in regard, as it happens, to one of the Town’s chosen “landmark” buildings: When in doubt – evict! [See “Eviction at Dungarvon” article, posted elsewhere on this site.] Is this the heavy-handedness which the officials at Town Hall intend to use in dealing with any downtown core ‘miscreants’ who may run afoul of them in future – whatever their dispute might be about? Is this how the Town will “co-operate” with downtown property owners when the going gets tough?

It seems blatantly obvious that the town’s current Corporate executive is in dire need of an attitude adjustment. It would behoove the powers that be to grasp and acknowledge that badgering and bullying are not a viable option, and that private agendas rarely serve public interests. Certain individuals, in particular, have demonstrated an unseemly level of bureaucratic hubris, and the unwelcomeness of that posture is now telling. If the Town hopes to regain the trust and co-operation of its citizens, it is going to have to prove itself worthy of that trust. From where they stand today, they have ahead of them a very long road.

I don’t mean, here, to belittle the efforts of all of those who have worked on this enterprise; who have organized, attended committee meetings, done research and paperwork, made calls, sent e-mails, and asked, and answered, a host of significant questions. They are to be commended for their work and their dedication to their community. This was a huge undertaking, and I have a suspicion that a good deal more personal time was donated by these industrious people over the last two or three years, than they originally intended, or expected. Bravo! Brava! & Thank You.

As well, the Town’s efforts at the last open house were commendable. The displays were well done, informative, and beautifully illustrative of their subjects. Town staffers were plentiful. They were friendly, solicitous, and frankly eager and well-prepared to answer any and all questions put to them by members of the viewing public. It’s a shame there were not more people in attendance, though an “open house,” at this stage, may not have been the best choice for “public consultation.” Clearly, people wanted to talk, and they wanted to talk in an open public forum. More importantly, they wanted to be heard.

And if Town officials continue to display symptoms of “big fish in a small pond” syndrome, it may indeed prove necessary for us little fish, to continue nipping at their metaphorical fins until they come to understand that this pond belongs to all of us, and each of us has a place in it.

Traveling The Heritage Road, Together

But however we got here, by honest intent, or through hidden agenda, we are here, now.

We have a decision to make, and we must somehow find our way through the miasma of dissension and mistrust that currently permeates our Heritage Conservation District project, to do that.

Yea-sayers and nay-sayers alike, Town officials and sitters-on-the-fence, must work together as we approach the obligatory public meeting, scheduled for June 23, at the Old Town Hall, where – by law – our concerns and intentions are meant to be, and must be heard.

This last leg of our journey will take patience, good will, and a diligence and willingness to master the first requisites of genuine communication: to speak truthfully, and to listen well.

May I suggest that, before that event, we meet, talk and share? The Town has had an obligation to hold a certain number of meetings for “public consultation,” but there is no rule that limits the number, or type, of meetings there must be on this topic. Got a big back yard with room for a few neighbors to gather and chat? Do it! Got a spacious house with plenty of room for guests? Why not have a Heritage District info party?!

Got questions you feel aren’t really being answered honestly by the PTB [Powers That Be]? Find someone you’ve met at a meeting, who seemed to have done their research, and whose “smarts” you trust, and ask them. Even better, find a few more people like yourself, who need answers, and invite them to listen, too. Make sure your information is accurate and legitimate, and you may find you are able to alleviate a few of your own concerns.

Good at paperwork? Offer your personal help, or start a volunteer group dedicated to helping property owners apply for grants and fill out and maintain other paperwork, that will make active participation easier for them, and allow them to feel more confidence in their decision.

Nay-sayers must be willing to set aside their fears and their resentments long enough to openly listen to the pleas and arguments of their neighbors, and to answer, Why? Why would you wish to opt out, when all around you would be opted in? And why choose to live, or own property, in an area of town so richly steeped in its own history, and then choose not to be part of its preservation?

Yea-sayers must be willing to accept, if persuasion and reason are not enough, that those who wish to opt out have the right to do so, and must not be resented or condemned for it. If this great country can host a political spectrum that includes Liberals and Conservatives, NDPers, Greens and Independents, and if we all can live together in relative peace, then surely our good town can cope with a few differences of opinion without falling apart, or coming to blows.

The best thing Town officials can do at this point, in my view, is to stay out of it. You’ve had your say, you’ve made your case, now let us take the proverbial ball and run with it. You can do your part in being open to these citizen meetings, and perhaps, in being willing to provide free resources to those who may want to host their own meetings, and by furnishing appropriate documents when requested.

When asked, your obligation to the public – your public – is to answer questions absolutely honestly: no fudging! The people whose support you are seeking for this proposal, are, after all, intelligent adults: we are perfectly capable of weighing the benefits and the disadvantages and coming up with the logical answers.

I would also strongly suggest, however, that the Town be prepared to “put its money where its mouth is,” and commit – in writing – to picking up the slack, should any of the information provided to downtowners prove to be erroneous. For example, if it turns out that insurance premiums – despite reassurances to the contrary – do go up if a property converts to “heritage,” then the Town should have money set aside, in its heritage fund, to cover those extra costs. After all, if you promise participants that there will be “no extra costs” to them for co-operating in this program – then there should be “no extra costs.” Period.

I suspect this would go a very long way to allaying many of the understandable fears that currently plague property owners in the downtown core. If our Corporate executive is so convinced that what they are assuring people of is the truth, they should have no objection to doing this.

And it’s time for all fence-sitters to come down off the fence. C’mon, admit it – you can’t have been very comfortable up there all this time anyway? Surely you’ve seen and heard enough by now to convince you one way or the other. Will this benefit us, or will it not? It’s not that hard a decision to make, and the Town needs to hear from you, too.

Above all, fear must not be allowed to choose our way. Fear is never a wise guide – a healthy companion to have along the way, yes, to remind us of our limitations – but not to lead us to our destination. Fear will always lead us to the path of least progress: fear shudders in the face of change.

I think there can be no question that a heritage district is a good thing for a town. To my knowledge there has never been a report to the contrary. But whether all individuals who live in that district feel it is good for them, may be another question. As suggested earlier, I feel we must make this decision as a community. Not what is good for thee or me, but what is best for us. We make the decision, after all, not only for our generation, but for the next, and the next.

Pride, as a community, is what makes us wish to preserve our history, but it takes enormous humility, as an individual, to step back and allow a process like this to take place, when your own wish would be for something different. I hope that those who are most troubled by this plan, which seems highly likely to proceed to fruition, are able to find in themselves the strength to bow to the will of the majority and stand with us on that day.

C.H. Wells