After a lengthy closed meeting debate, and two emergency meetings, city council has finally released the details around the emergency demolition ordered for the old Shortreed Farmhouse at 797 Victoria Road North. The redacted report outlines in specific detail the risk to the property, and the risk to the City of Guelph’s liability without the demolition after several meetings between Guelph Fire and the Grand River Conservation Authority.
“Fire inspectors have attended the property in response to complaints received about people accessing the vacant buildings,” the report said noting the destruction by fire of two other buildings on the same property earlier this year. A large barn burned down at the end of May, and another outer building was destroyed in July.
The last remaining building, the farmhouse itself, was showing signs of not just habitation, but evidence that people were burning fires inside the building, likely for warmth. Fire inspectors sent to the site noticed gas cans and burn patterns on the carpet, and they also noticed points of ingress into the farmhouse despite the attempts by the property owner, the GRCA, to secure it.
“The property owner has undertaken appropriate measures including securing the property from unauthorized access through the boarding up of windows and doors with wooden boards and metal screens as well as employing security personnel,” the report said. “The GRCA has no current or future use for the house. As such, the property will remain vulnerable to fire risks as long as it is retained in a vacant state.”
The report outlined numerous “fire and life safety concerns” if the house were to remain including the possibility that people would be trapped if an uncontrolled fire broke out, the danger to firefighters if they have to go into the building to rescue someone, and the potential response time to a fire seeing as how the house is set back 300 metres from the road. On top of that, a fire might not be a danger to just the house itself, but a danger to the land and woods in the surrounding areas including active farmland and an off-road biking trail.
The recommendations in the report are fairly similar to the ones approved by council in open session at the September 27 meeting. Staff recommended that the farmhouse be recorded by a qualified heritage consultant, that the farmhouse be dismantled carefully, and that the stone be salvaged and stored. There was no financial implication for the City because the property owner, the GRCA, was responsible for the demolition costs and the transportation of rescued materials.
So, game over?
“City staff continues to have concerns about the safety of the site due to the risk of instability of the farmhouse walls,” said a staff memo. “However, given that the Property has been secured and the majority of combustible materials have been largely removed from the farmhouse, the information contained in the Report is being released to the public in accordance with the Motion.”
At an emergency meeting of council on Wednesday, council passed a motion to release a redacted version of the closed meeting report on 797 Victoria Road North. Councillor Leanne Caron made the motion saying that the public needed to understand the “root of the decision” and what was at stake for the City. It appears that there were only three instances in the report where solicitor’s advice had to be removed in order to make it public.
Controversy around the demolition persists through because it was revealed at an emergency meeting of council on September 30 that the motions were made and passed without the consultation of Heritage Guelph. Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart promised a top level review of the staff and council procedure in this matter.
In the meantime, Chief Planner and GM of Planning and Building Services Krista Walkey will be delivering a verbal report to Heritage Guelph on their meeting on Tuesday.