If a house falls apart in the woods, does it make a sound in the council chambers? Depends on the house, and it depends on the night.
At 797 Victoria Rd. N sits the old Shortreed Farmhouse, a stone building that’s over 180 years old. There was barely a small settlement called Guelph when this farmhouse was built, and though it survived much of the last two centuries, it looks like it cannot survive systemic disinterest and neglect.
That’s why council came out of closed session on Monday night with a motion to approve the emergency demolition, because the building’s essentially a safety hazard. Council approved the demolition, but with the caveat that it be demolished carefully with an eye to preserving as much of the heritage features as possible, or at least documenting them.
Flash forward to Thursday evening, and an emergency council meeting dedicated to some new information about the motion passed on Monday. It turns out that when staff was looking for action on the Shortreed Farmhouse they focused more on the safety and not-so-much on the heritage. It seems like consultations with Heritage Guelph were skipped as the focus was on the city’s liability.
Mayor Cam Guthrie called the meeting after learning these new details, but the threshold to reconsider a previously approved decision by the city is high, nine of 13 votes need to vote yes to re-open a vote, and at the special meeting there were only seven. CAO Scott Stewart said that the situation was a once in a blue moon oversight, but the rarity of the situation isn’t what makes it unacceptable.
First, this is another instance where we have consequential decisions being discussed and made in-camera, and while the reasons for a closed meeting discussion may be legally valid, they do not feel valid. It’s a bit disconcerting whenever council goes into closed session to discuss a matter and comes out with a fully formed, multi-part motion that must be voted on in open session without any context.
Even for me, it was a bit of a shock waiting for council to come out of the in-camera session to formally close Monday’s meeting only to hear them say, “One more thing…” before announcing a complex motion for which there was no advanced information provided to the public. This also happened more than 90 minutes after council effectively concluded the open session saying there was no further business.
That’s not right. It may be right according to the rules and the procedures of council, but it’s not right if the idea of council is to enact and administer decisions on behalf of the public under their oversight. This goes double for a matter of heritage, which has a very loud, very active group of community lobbyists in this city.
For those people, what happened with 797 Victoria Road North is a familiar story.
Here again, a heritage asset has been allowed to fall into disarray to the point it can no longer be salvaged, and if there’s an attempt by concerned citizens (or councillors) to salvage it, they’re told it’s too late. The damn thing is now more fire hazard than heritage feature, and in an overly litigious society, you can’t just leave a fire hazard lying around.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people weary of any and every landowner in Guelph who suddenly find that the barriers to potential development - like protection of a heritage asset - are suddenly wiped off the board. “I’d really like to want to save this precious farmhouse from the 1840s, but you can almost get tetanus just by looking at it. Best raze it and if there’s a nice, clear piece of land to develop from scratch, them’s the breaks.”
People are ready to believe in a world where property owners and developers will do whatever is legally permissible to make their land as profitable as possible. As the great urban planner Lex Luthor once said, land is the one thing that they’re not making any more of, which makes it a precious commodity in the limited and unchanging city limits of a thriving and growing community like Guelph.
Again, none of this is to say that anything that happened at council this week was wrong or improper, but that’s going to be a tough sell to anyone with a finely tuned cynical edge. “Trust us” isn’t good public engagement policy, and neither is “stuff the demolition of a heritage asset at the end of low-key council meeting long after most people would have shut off the Facebook Live feed.”
Whatever screw ups happened with procedure this week were compounded – again – by a city council that leans too heavily on the veil of confidentiality. The specific circumstances around 797 Victoria Rd. may be rare, but the genre is sadly familiar.