A November story in CollingwoodToday about a new homeowner who got caught in the quagmire of our heritage district rules underscores the need for a thorough overhaul of the rules, a review of how the district is managed, and serious improvements in how the town and the heritage committee communicate information about the zone to both new and existing property owners. And how they treat homeowners.
According to the story in CollingwoodToday, the new owners of a 1930 house on Fourth Street, renovated and painted the building in violation of the district’s rules, but claim they were not fully informed about the requirements of those often byzantine restrictions.
That’s not surprising. A look at the heritage committee website shows that there isn’t a single page that outlines the obligations of homeowners or the requirements for permits for renovations or upgrades. In fact, it doesn’t even say why heritage is important or what the district was created to preserve.
Worse, the town’s own heritage page (on its user-hostile website) says nothing about permits or obligations, or even offers a link to the town’s own heritage committee page (that page can be found here, but it doesn’t link back to the town’s heritage page nor does either page list the obligations of homeowners or permit requirements!). It’s a horrible, dog’s breakfast site that communicates nothing.
The heritage committee doesn’t even have a council representative on it, so it doesn’t have a direct link to the political infrastructure. A gobsmacking oversight, although it has staff and BIA representatives. And it is unclear from the flaccid description on the committee’s page if any of the committee members are even property owners in the district or what sort of qualifications they have to sit on the committee. (Why outsiders would be allowed to sit on the committee is beyond me.)
As the story notes, the owners went ahead with their renovations, including painting the house, and, even though the town’s bylaw officers came by somewhat too late, the town didn’t stop them or issue a stop-work order. Did the bylaw officer explain the requirements and process? None of the media seem to have asked that.
So the owners continued to make many changes and upgrades, assuming they could. But now, as the story continues, they may have to undo it all at a greater expense:
“…the couple is looking at a possible $30,000 bill to remove paint they applied to the exterior, and the possibility of a lien being placed on their home until they complete the removal.”
This event suggests that the heritage district, while initially a good idea on paper, has been remarkably poorly implemented and has failed our residents. If new property owners don’t understand what being in a heritage zone entails, what is required or the restrictive paperwork necessary to even paint your windowsills, then it seems the heritage committee and the town have failed to communicate the district’s goals and requirements effectively. But given the town’s failure in other areas of communication, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The real estate listing (click on the pictures above) only mentions “Restrictions: Easement, Heritage” without defining what they are. It notes this property is a “Charming 3 bedroom brick bungalow, located in Collingwood’s heritage district, with C1 zoning.” It adds, “C1 zoning in Heritage District” without stating what C1 means. Nowhere in this listing did it mention potential restrictions or requirements for renovation or upgrades should the owner wish to do anything. One of the owners said:
‘“From what we are learning, the concept of a heritage district is certainly not as well understood as the concept of a home with a heritage designation,” said Hamilton. “The town should not enforce rules with such negative outcomes if they are not committed to educating people about them.”
A story in the Connection (yes, I know: it’s always a surprise when they actually cover news) noted the homeowners felt abused by the committee when they tried to reason with it, and yet council upheld the heritage committee’s decision to force the couple to undo their work:
“[The heritage committee] also made abundantly clear … that part of their plan to tidy things up a bit was also to make a public example of our family and to burden us with the costs of removing the paint,” he said. “We owned up to our mistake immediately, but we were misinformed and mistreated by the town through every step of the process. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Council, too, should be ashamed of themselves for not coming to the homeowner’s rescue, or for taking even a modicum of responsibility to fix this debacle, but shaming themselves for inappropriate behaviour is their mantra for this term. Responsibility isn’t in their vocabulary: it’s always Someone Else’s Fault.
And although the town’s bylaw officers visited the house and spoke to the owners, they apparently didn’t issue a stop-work order even though they could see what was being done. As noted in the Connection:
Hamilton said they were never told to stop painting, as the town does not have the authority to issue a stop-work order on heritage permits like they do with building permits.
He said their home is not a designated heritage home and they didn’t know they were violating any rules. They painted the house white to match others in the downtown core and said they don’t believe the bricks on their home to be original.
In neither media story is there any suggestion the reporters asked the homeowners to clarify what, if anything, their real estate agent and lawyer had informed them of their responsibilities and obligations. And neither media identified the owners’ real estate agent as our own deputy mayor, Keith Hull.
Nor, apparently, did they ask Hull what, if anything, he told the new owners about purchasing a home in the heritage district. But the Connection noted the homeowners didn’t feel they had been properly informed by either:
In a presentation to council, [Hamilton] said they were not told by their real estate agent or lawyer of the rules of the heritage district; nor were they “contacted by the committee or the town to educate us.”
This raises the question: why aren’t real estate agents and lawyers required to tell potential buyers about obligations for properties in the heritage district? And who is responsible for informing people (including buyers)? It seems obvious the town has failed in how it communicates the district’s goals and requirements. As CollingwoodToday indicated:
“From what we are learning, the concept of a heritage district is certainly not as well understood as the concept of a home with a heritage designation,” said Hamilton. “The town should not enforce rules with such negative outcomes if they are not committed to educating people about them.”
The Connection also noted that
Coun. Deb Doherty put forward a notice of motion calling for a bylaw that would allow stop-work orders for heritage permits.
But the problem isn’t in permits: it’s in educating people about what they need, why, and how and when to apply for them. It’s in communication, or rather the appalling lack of it. If they’ve already waded through the morass of red tape and bureaucracy to get a permit, homeowners probably have at least a minimal grasp on how the arcane, often punitive system works.
The heritage district should be a source of pride for this community, something we want people to love and boast about, not some authoritarian infrastructure that treats homeowners like disobedient serfs. But, apparently, our council prefers the latter. No, I am not surprised, either.
Instead of taking responsibility for the poor communication and confusing rules, councillors uttered self-righteous “buyer beware” bromides. As if buyers themselves are responsible for the poor communication and vague websites. In her best let-them-eat-cake sneer, Councillor McLeod is reported saying,
“I am a big fan of consistency. Although my heart is sad for this family, there has to be some responsibility for purchasing.”
So basically council said the flogging will continue until morale improves. My heart is sad. Aww. Now send them to the guillotine!
No sympathy for the homeowners faced with a massive bill, and certainly no responsibility assumed for continued, poor communication. Not even a motion to revise and improve communications and information sites to prevent this from happening in future. Instead of fixing this mess, the town will keep doing its business as usual while most of council continues to sleepwalk past their own responsibilities.
Here are a few simple suggestions to help avoid this sort of shitfest in future (if the town had a communications officer, this could have been done ages ago):
- Create a simple, two-sided rack card that explains on one side why the heritage district exists, and on the other outlines in bullet form the owner’s responsibilities and obligations, with appropriate links to websites for permit applications and additional explanation;
- Clearly state on that card what upgrades and renovations are permitted and what requires a permit;
- Provide a contact phone number and email address for anyone to call the town and get further information;
- EXPLAIN in simple terms the visual/design obligations including those that affect colours and appearance changes, and identify what is allowed and what requires a permit;
- EXPLAIN in simple terms the penalties and the appeal process;
- Require all real estate agencies to provide these rack cards to every seller and potential buyers for a property in the heritage district;
- Have these cards stocked in all town offices, in tourist rack card displays around the town, and offer them to BIA stores and businesses to share with visitors and customers;
- Give the heritage committee a stock of these cards to hand out and share;
- Mail these rack cards to every property owner and renter in the heritage district (including non-resident owners who live out of town);
- Update the town’s and heritage committee’s websites to include all pertinent information about why permits are required and for what, and list the obligations and permit process clearly;
- Clearly show the permitted colour palette on both websites and make it available in downloadable and printable form;
- Require all property sales or transfers in the heritage district to be accompanied by an information package that identifies all obligations, requirements, and has links to permit application sites and contact information;
- Request that all online real estate listings for properties in the heritage district should include a link to the updated and expanded heritage committee website and staff contact information;
- Host regular and open information sessions (virtual during the pandemic) for real estate companies, agents, lawyers, property owners and the media to explain the district, its requirements, and property-owner obligations.
This isn’t rocket science: it’s basic communication and marketing. Homeowners should never find themselves in this mess pleading before a stony, unsympathetic council again.
Collingwood deserves better.
PS. This piece was written in Nov. 2021, and originally published that month. However, it was deleted in late December when my abysmally bad host server, Godaddy, broke my blog through technical incompetence. I am in the process of trying to restore as many lost posts as possible. My apologies to subscribers who received and read this piece previously.