Preserving built history is costly

Homeowners often shiver when someone in authority considers their home a candidate for heritage protection.

I consider myself a history lover. I enjoy reading about the past and discovering interesting details about the people, places and yes, buildings, that over the years have become woven into the fabric of our region’s story.

I have great admiration for old buildings that are close to their original state, or at least relatively so, given the necessity to do earthquake upgrading and add other safety features to an old structure.

I have little use for buildings or homes that cling minimally to the initial design, having been added onto, covered up or otherwise changed dramatically from their original design or footprint.

Should such structures qualify to be on a heritage registry? Perhaps. Surely, making radical changes disqualifies them from being considered for heritage designation, unless the owner plans to restore the original exterior.

Homeowners often shiver when they believe someone in a position of authority considers their home a candidate for heritage protection. They worry that having their home identified as such heavily limits and controls what they can do to change it.

For heritage designation, that much can be true. But far fewer limitations exist for homeowners whose houses are put on a local heritage registry. Such a distinction only means heritage advocates are keeping an eye on the house so nothing as drastic as a subdivision or at worst, a razing, takes place without further discussion.

The owners of a home with historical, and in the eyes of some, architectural significance, recently defended to Oak Bay council their request for a permit to demolish the house to make room for new structures on their double lot.

To anyone who has worked hard for the ability to either build, purchase or redesign the house of their dreams, the strategy, on the surface, would seem a logical step.

But Oak Bay Heritage Commission members argued against the action. The house, which served as a boarding home in the 1920s for St. Michaels School, is an excellent example of the Craftsman style of architecture, they said. It is part of an identified neighbourhood of similar style homes, and is, in their view, in reasonable enough condition to warrant saving.

The situation begs the question, should the owner of an older home be permitted to let their house deteriorate to the point where the cost of upgrading is massive and leaves demolition as the primary option? Or does a municipality spend money to keep closer watch on non-registered heritage homes, to head off the possibility of a demolition request?

Unless the state of such a house, or the actions of its owner, are causing problems for neighbours, there is little a municipality can do to guard against letting a house fall into disrepair. It can prevent the demolition of such homes where it sees a significant heritage threat. But that stance can be tested in court and local governments are often reluctant to commit to spending thousands on legal fees to defend their position.

I appreciate that certain people and groups have taken a stand over the years to say our built heritage is important enough to preserve. That said, there needs to be some kind of incentive available to give homeowners with no intention of restoring or preserving their older home a viable alternative to knocking it down or trying to sell an old, run-down fixer-upper.

The City of Victoria has had great success with its downtown heritage tax incentive program, which offers commercial building owners a 10-year property tax holiday in exchange for renovating or restoring the structure.

Such a strategy could work for residential properties.

The bottom line is, preserving heritage doesn’t come without a cost. It’s not as simple as saying a property has historic significance and leaving it at that. Those who argue for the protection of our heritage must somehow find a way to make such a concept a win-win situation.

Otherwise, the value of heritage will be decided in the courts, where everyone loses.

Don Descoteau is editor of the Oak Bay News.

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