The latest venue for the controversy over the emergency demolition of 797 Victoria Road North is the one that it skipped to begin with. At the Heritage Guelph meeting on Tuesday, members of the committee got to ask staff questions about what the heck happened, and how everyone can avoid letting it happen again. Basically, there was no intended slight, but the risk to life made staff “miss” all other considerations.
Krista Walkey, Chief Planner and General Manager of Planning and Building Services, was on-hand to explain the situation to Heritage Guelph and answer any potential questions. To recap, the building was under threat of destruction by fire after two other buildings on the property burned down this past summer. The old Shortreed farmhouse represented a potential danger to both people and property, and thus council was presented with a fire order.
“I do want to highlight that planning staff did have a section of the report in which we did recommend that the building be designated, and council had that information in front of them when they made their decision,” Walkey said of the redacted closed meeting report that the City released on Friday. “I can say that the vote was not unanimous, but there was a decision to remove it from the municipal register, and to demolish the building.”
Indeed, the motion to carefully demolish the farmhouse was passed at the September 27 meeting by a vote of 8-5 after council discussed the matter in-camera. Later that week, it was discovered that City staff had not sought insight or advice from Heritage Guelph as they should have under the provincial Heritage Act, which prompted Mayor Cam Guthrie to call an emergency meeting to see if council supported a vote of reconsideration to re-open the matter, but it failed to secure the nine necessary votes.
At the Heritage Guelph meeting, committee member Kesia Kvill asked how this happened in the first place. “Certainly the the legislative requirements were absolutely a miss on our part, and I fully acknowledged that with the chair,” Walkey said.
“We did put in the staff report that consultation would occur with Heritage Guelph following their [Council’s] decisions, so council kind of knew where we were at in the process,” Walkey explained. “You will see from the cover report that there was significant concern about life safety because the property is set back from the road, and there were significant concerns by the fire chief that putting the address out in advance would cause additional risk to human health and safety.”
In the report released Friday, the staff memo explained that the risk to life was increased because the farmhouse is setback 300 metres from the road, and because two other buildings on the property had burned down within two months of each other. “Indeed, unseen from the road and highly combustible, there was a significant risk that, should a fire occur, people could be trapped inside the farmhouse and any attending firefighters’ lives would also be at risk,” the report said.
Committee member James Smith wondered about that timing, why did it take so long between the second fire on July 18 and the need to make a decision at the September 27 meeting.
“After the second fire in July, the fire department did have regular communication with the GRCA about how they secured the building, put up metal grates in the building and had some security patrols,” Walkey said. “But I gather it was not enough, and there was still breaches of the security measures that the GRCA had been in place.”
The closed meeting report did mention “several meetings” between the Guelph Fire Department and the Grand River Conservation Authority. After the fire on July 18, it was discovered that people were accessing the farmhouse through a hole in the north side of the building, and there was charred wooden debris there. “Regardless of reasonable due diligence by the owner, any securing of the building was being continually breached; this time with evidence of a fire that was incendiary in nature,” the report said.
“I can’t fully speak to all the conversations that the fire department had with GRCA, but the GRCA had certainly taken measures to secure the building, but [the farmhouse] is very remote and it was unsuccessful,” Walkey added.
Heritage Guelph chair P. Brian Skerrett asked if there were any other measures that the Guelph Fire Department could have taken beyond property standards, but the staff available didn’t know and offered to take that point away. Skerrett also asked about why the report originated under Corporate Services and not Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise as usual in heritage matters. Walkey said that the report was filed as a matter of legal affairs, which makes it a Corporate Services report.
“I’ll just summarize what everybody already knows, including staff, and that is that Heritage Guelph was disappointed that we were not consulted given that there’s not only provincial legislation, but reference to consultation in both our Official Plan, and in our terms of reference,” Skerrett said.
“I have communicated with Krista and DCAO [Jayne] Holmes on this topic, and we’re trying to leverage this for positives on in the future,” Skerrett said. “The house has come down at this point, it’s not coming back, but if we can make this a learning experience and go forward to try and do a better job with the remaining heritage inventory we have, then that’s the best outcome we’re going to get from a bad situation.”