EMBRUN – “Don’t feel bad about it. You win some, you lose some,” township of Russell Coun. André Brisson said.
Brisson’s statement was made in response to a decision made during the Aug. 9 council meeting, where the municipality’s Heritage Conservation District (HCD) project was put to rest. Coun. Mike Tarnowski put forth a motion to end the project effective immediately and Brisson seconded that motion. With support from Coun. Jamie Laurin, those opposed to the HCD were the victors. Mayor Pierre Leroux and Coun. Cindy Saucier both voted in favour of continuing the project.
“I’m sorry that I was not able to convince everybody,” director of planning, building and economic development Dominique Tremblay said following the final vote.
The decision was made after a lengthy discussion, as well as an open question period with residents. Council had voted at their May 17 council meeting to defer the decision until August so that Tremblay might have time to research more palatable alternatives, such as a one-or-two-year pilot project, whereby council would have the chance to cancel the project should it not meet with expectations.
Tremblay’s recommendation to council was an action plan with three steps: an in-person public meeting in September to help address resident questions, as well as the increasing amount of misinformation being disseminated from unidentified sources; a staff report and recommendation to council based on feedback from that meeting; and the creation of an HCD committee comprised primarily of Russell residents. Tremblay said she wanted to provide an additional level of security and comfort for those residents who were still wary of the HCD.
“With all the work that’s been done, can homeowners come in and get assistance with designations for their own property, and if so, what can we do to assist them with this,” Laurin asked. Tremblay confirmed this could be done and outlined the process.
Like his council colleagues, Laurin said he spoke with residents on both sides of the issue over the weekend. It was noted that many residents were concerned about a variety of incorrect statements that were being made via person-to-person conversations, or through pamphlets and posters. Saucier said a resident had heard they wouldn’t be able to use a generator because it wouldn’t fit into the HCD aesthetic. This was incorrect. She listed a few other examples of incorrect information being circulated amongst residents, including the notion that taxes would double.
“All publicity is good publicity,” Leroux said, noting that the misinformation campaign had given him several opportunities to speak directly with residents and provide the facts.
Brisson said the discussion was making it sound like the misinformation was coming from those opposed to the HCD. He suggested that there was misinformation being circulated from both sides.
Saucier said many of the property owners in the proposed HCD that she had spoken with were in favour of the project. In fact, over the past week, she said she had received 20 letters in support of the HCD and only three against. Further discussion revealed an interest in finding out how residents living in the proposed HCD felt about the plan, as it appeared some of the opposition might be property owners who rent homes or own businesses and who may not have an interest in protecting Russell’s heritage or the feel of the village.
“We have to ask ourselves, not if that change is going to happen, but when that change is going to happen,” Tremblay said, noting similar situations throughout the province. She said there are needs for this all over Ontario and that’s why the province has the HCD guidelines in place. Tremblay said while most homeowners would no doubt make choices in keeping with the current heritage feel of the village, developers have no incentives to do so.
Leroux asked Tremblay a series of questions to help clarify the purpose behind the HCD, which is to protect the heritage feel of the area from developers focused on buying property and demolishing century-old buildings. Tremblay made it clear that with the current situation, the township has no control over who buys a heritage home or whether they choose to demolish it and build a modern structure in its place.
“I think these questions are working on people’s potential fears,” Tarnowski said.
Leroux said his questions were meant to clarify what the township has the authority to protect with and without an HCD in place. He also noted, like Tremblay, that the HCD is a tool to control change, not stop it.
“It’s already starting to happen,” Saucier said. “There are houses across from Russell High School that are already coming down to put up rowhouses. Developers are knocking on doors to say, ‘tell me when you’re selling’ because they want to tear down and put-up condos.”
Both Tarnowski and Brisson made comments defending new builds. Brisson said new builds can be made to look just as good as the heritage buildings.
“One day, we’ll look back and say, ‘you know, Russell’s not what it used to be,’” Leroux said.
In the end, the divide was clear with three opposed to the HCD and only two in favour. Leroux said the 3-2 vote effectively and immediately ends all work or talk of the HCD. Leroux noted there are only two ways to revive the HCD: one of the councillors opposing the project would need to reverse their decision and bring it back to the council table, or the next council could potentially raise the issue again.
“That’s democracy,” Leroux said.