This Month at Council PART 1: Emergency Meetings, and Demolition Fallout

This October recap of the events of city council actually started in September. Unexpectedly, an emergency meeting was called on September 30 to talk about events that occurred at the September 27 regular council meeting. Maybe you heard about it. The events of those meetings cast a shadow over a lot of council business for the rest of the month, and that includes the Committee of the Whole and planning meetings covered here.

RECAP: Emergency Meeting of City Council – September 27

Early on Thursday afternoon, an announcement went out that Mayor Cam Guthrie called an emergency meeting of city council. The topic was the old farmhouse at 797 Victoria Road North, and a potential vote of reconsideration on Monday’s decision to [carefully] demolish it after it was reported to the City as a potential fire hazard.

None of this was known to the public as it was all debated and decided in closed session at Monday’s meeting. Council had the final vote in open session more than 90 minutes after the rest of the open meeting agenda was discussed, but in the haste, it seemed that council missed a step, which is why Guthrie called for the emergency meeting.

So, council went into closed session for over an hour, and when it emerged the motion for reconsideration of Monday’s vote was put on the floor. A nine-vote majority was needed to re-open the motion, and with 11 people present, it was going to be a tight vote. It failed 7-4.

After the vote Guthrie and CAO Scott Stewart explained the situation saying that there was an “injury to life” threat at the property, and while City staff did their due diligence in consulting with the Fire Department, they did not consult with Heritage Guelph. Stewart said that the lack of consultation was not an intentional slight or oversight to the committee, but a fulsome review of what happened will be coming back to council.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Committee of the Whole Meeting – October 4

The committee meeting for October went pretty in-depth on the subject of real estate assets even though much of the rest of the agenda was handled with relative swiftness.

First, on the new petition policy, committee didn’t have any specific questions, but they did have a concern about making sure that bringing a petition to council was not easier than bringing a notice of motion. Councillor Mark MacKinnon said that he’s working with the clerks office to develop some new language that will come back before the council meeting at the end of the month.

The two consent agenda items from the Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise agenda passed quickly, so committee easily went right into the second request to cut down some trees in front of 649 Scottsdale to help its retail appeal.

Matthew Organ, the owner of the property, told committee that their new proposal was “scaled back as much as possible,” and it came down to removing the trees in front of the building directly. Staff said that the problem with the plan wasn’t the proposed compensation, or the scale, it was authorizing the destruction of trees for purely aesthetic reasons. Some on committee worried about that precedent and held up the staff decision 11-2.

The big item was the update of Real Estate Assets. The focus for staff was on the Drill Hall, which needs more money and resources to stabilize than originally thought, and the properties at 341 Forestell Road and 880 Victoria Road, which are the next properties slated to be stabilized.

Following last week’s emergency demolition order for 797 Victoria Road North there was some concern about whether the City was doing everything it can to protect heritage assets. Councillor Leanne Caron led the discussion asking staff about stopping further deterioration at these sites, but it’s apparently a matter of limited finances and priority. According to staff, they have to put money into assets the City is currently using first, and whatever is left over, goes to under-utilized assets.

That dynamic played out in the committee debate with some on committee ready and willing to do more to preserve the Drill Hall, and others who balked at the $8-$9 million in suggested costs to make it habitable.

Staff did not have hard numbers on how much it would cost to make the Drill Hall ready for people to work there, which is why staff is eager to get the stabilization done and find a community partner to guide, and help fund, its further redevelopment. Staff said that it was clear from the marketability survey that a Guelph community group will likely be entrusted with the future of the Drill Hall; private developers were only interested in the property, not the building.

Caron proposed three amendments for the staff set of recommendations including the completion of stabilization efforts at the Forestell and Victoria Road properties in two years instead of three, and to start a process to get expressions of interest for the Victoria Road property sometime early next year.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Emergency Meeting of City Council – October 6

For the second time in two weeks, there was an emergency council meeting concerning issues around the emergency demolition of 797 Victoria Road North.

To recap, council approved the motion to careful destroy the potential fire trap after a lengthy in-camera debate on September 27. After finding out that they made the move without the consultation of Heritage Guelph, an emergency meeting was called for September 39 to see if council wanted to rescind the decision, but without a nine-vote majority the horseshoe held up the original five-part motion.

Or did they?

There was apparently some confusion about the motion to approve the suspension of the Procedural Bylaw at the September 30 meeting; in the version that was written out and displayed at the meeting, council would have only needed a simple majority to approve the motion to reconsider, but as explained by the Clerk and the Mayor, the motion needed a super-majority of nine to pass. Councillor Leanne Caron, who moved the motion, said that she was endorsing the former interpretation, not the latter.

One delegate spoke to council about the confusing nature of the meeting, how emergency meetings are called without much notice and without much background information to help the public understand what’s happening. Some councillors, absent from last week’s emergency meeting, were concerned that they did not have the information they needed to make an informed decision about what the minutes said exactly. Other councillors were visibly fed up revisiting this topic and said that they knew what it was they had voted for at last week’s meeting.

Ultimately, the draft minutes of September 30 were confirmed by council by a vote of 7-5 and will be ratified in process at a future meeting of council.

Caron then had a separate motion asking for the staff report shared with council in closed session to be released to the general public with the legal advice redacted. Caron wanted this done in 24 hours, but CAO Scott Stewart wasn’t sure about staff time so countered with a new deadline of Friday by the end of business. Caron said that was too long because the demolition of the farmhouse will be done by Friday, so they split the difference and went for Friday a noon.

The motion passed 10-2 with Councillor Dan Gibson, being one of the no votes, saying that not including the legal advice only gives people half the story.

The meeting ended 90 minutes after it began with Mayor Guthrie noting that the entire predicament on this file had been “trying.”

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Planning Meeting of City Council – October 12

It was supposed to be a simple meeting, two topics on the consent agenda and a presentation, but the events of the last few weeks seem to be casting a long shadow on council’s thinking, especially when the words “heritage value” are involved.

After the announcement of the Guelph Urban Design Awards, now officially nicknamed the GUDAs, council passed the first of two items of business. The deadline for the draft plan of the Hanlon Creek Business Park was extended to November 2026 after a few probing questions from council by a unanimous vote. As for the GUDAs, you can watch a video of who won this term’s awards here:

Then it was time for the big item of the night, the request to demolish 239 Elizabeth Street. Although the home hasn’t been designated to the Heritage Registry, it was on the Couling Registry, which is a list of properties built before 1927 that the City keeps an eye on. The property owner wants to tear down the current one-storey cottage-style home and build a new three-storey house, but Heritage Guelph wanted to designate the property noting its potentially part of a future Ward North heritage district.

Because 239 Elizabeth is on the Couling list, and because Heritage Guelph wanted to refuse the demolition application to designate, it came to council to break the proverbial tie, and because of all the controversy around 797 Victoria Road, it seemed like council was going to go to extreme lengths to assure they did their due diligence.

Included in the meeting was Heritage Guelph chair P. Brian Skerrett who appeared at the request of council and explained that the committee’s wish to designate was based on several criteria. Heritage planner Stephen Robinson noted that the value of the building itself was also tied to the streetscape, and with a heritage district designation for the area perhaps a decade away, the aesthetic of the steetscape could be lost over time by approving one demolition at a time.

There was a clear divide on council between half of the group that wanted to recognize the property rights of the owner, and the other half that wanted to be delicate about heritage after recent events. The demolition request was refused by council in a slim 6-7 vote.

So now what? Council had to pass a motion to announce their intention to designate 239 Elizabeth Street. Chief Planner Krista Walkey said that staff would have to generate criteria, and that might require the outside input of a hired consultant. The motion to publish the notice passed by another slim 7-6 vote.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

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