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The Clock Tower: it is not too late to do the right thing

Three and a half years ago I wrote to Mayor Tony Van Bynen urging him to bring in a Heritage Conservation District By-law without delay to save the historic neighbourhood from predatory developers.

In a few short days, on 28 November 2016, Newmarket's councillors will decide the fate of the Town's Heritage Conservation District.

Everything I thought might happen is now, tragically, unfolding before our very eyes.

On 30 April 2013, the Mayor knew what the consequences would be if he did not  immediately implement the Heritage Conservation District By-law. I told him. At that stage the developer was poised to submit an application to redevelop the Clock Tower site.

The Director of Planning must have known that without the safeguard of a Heritage Conservation District by-law entrenching the three storey height cap, the face of the historic downtown could be transformed in a way the 2011 HCD Plan never envisaged.

Were councillors ever explicitly told that a by-law was needed to protect and entrench the 2011 Heritage Conservation District Plan? Or was a conscious decision taken to delay the by-law as one way of keeping options open and keeping Forrest's redevelopment plans alive?

Were councillors ever told that s 41.2 of the Ontario Heritage Act gave iron-clad protection to a Heritage Conservation District Plan where buttressed with an entrenching By-law? If not, why not?

If councillors were told, why didn't they act?

The questions cry out for answers but, in a very real sense, it is all water under the bridge.

What matters now is that councillors do the right thing and reject the advice of their own planners whose mis-steps have led us to this sorry state.

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On 30 April 2013, I wrote to Van Bynen:

I am writing to ask you to take immediate steps to bring forward a By Law to create a Heritage Conservation District on Main Street South.

The Council approved the Heritage Conservation District Plan for Lower Main Street South at its meeting on 30 May 2011 but the enabling By Law has never been implemented.

The matter is now urgent. As you know, developers are knocking at the door with plans to transform the Heritage District and, in the process, ruin precious sight-lines and vistas.

At the Committee of the Whole yesterday, you received the 5 March 2013 Minutes of the Heritage Newmarket Advisory Committee when a presentation was given to Committee members on the proposed Clock Tower redevelopment which would involve, amongst other things, the demolition of historic commercial buildings.

You also received the Minutes of the Main Street District Business Improvement Board of Management held on 19 March 2013. We are told Councillor Sponga “provided a descriptive chronicle of the property issues and former ownership” before informing members that the owner would be outlining the proposed redevelopment at a meeting on 3 April 2013.

You were present at that April meeting (along with Regional Councillor Taylor and Councillors Hempen, Sponga, Emanuel and Twinney) and you would have heard Chris Bobyk, on behalf of the Forrest Group, tell the audience that he hoped an application for the redevelopment of the Clock Tower site would be lodged with the Town in the next few months.

Now that we know what is in the developer’s mind, the Town should take immediate steps to protect the integrity of the historic conservation area and entrench in a By Law the existing Council policy which is set out in the 2011 Heritage District Conservation Plan.

If matters are allowed to drift and the developer, at some point in the future, goes to the OMB, the absence of a By Law could be of material importance.

I am copying this to Regional Councillor Taylor and all Town Councillors and to Athol Hart, the Chair of Heritage Newmarket Advisory Committee.

On 8 May 2013, the Director of Planning, Rick Nethery, replied on behalf of the Mayor:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the implementation of the Lower Main Street South Heritage Conservation District. Mayor Van Bynen has asked me to respond to your e-mail on his behalf.

Council has directed that the Heritage District bylaw be approved however,  administratively the Town has not been in a position to do so due to lack of human resources to fully administer the Plan.   Staff will bring the matter of the implementation of this plan forward as part of the 2014 Budget deliberations. 

We can assure you that in the interim, any applications that are received by the Planning Department for redevelopment within the district boundaries will be reviewed against the policies of the plan, including consultation with the Town’s Heritage Committee, Heritage Newmarket as well as requiring Heritage Assessments as appropriate.

Furthermore, the normal and usual Planning Act processes are still required for any significant development proposals in the area. This may include site plan approval and/or zoning by-law amendments which require Council approval. Through these processes, Council can, among other things, consider the compatibility of any proposal with the surrounding uses.

Thank you for your continued interest in Newmarket’s growth.

In my blog at the time, I wrote:

This is very encouraging but it does beg one or two questions.

If the Heritage Conservation District policy stands on its own, buttressed if needs be by the usual Planning Act processes, why is a By Law needed?

Put simply, what does the By Law do that the policy on its own does not do?

And does it matter to the Forrest Group that there is, as yet, no By Law?

I asked for further clarification and Nethery replied on 17 May 2013:

In short, the by-law adopting a Heritage Conservation District is required to fully implement the District Plan and have it be in full force and effect. While we utilize the Plan to assist in evaluating proposals, the passing of an adopting by-law gives the Plan it’s Official status.

Council has tools other than a Heritage Conservation District at their disposal that can guide the character of new development and significant additions to properties. However, a Heritage Conservation District Plan is more than the way in which buildings are altered, it also provides guidance on signage, improvements to sidewalks and roads, access to open space etc. The adoption of the by-law at the appropriate time will add a level of formality to the process for redevelopment in the district.

For your information, proposals that do not necessarily conform to all aspects of a Heritage Conservation District plan, whether it is in full force or not, can continue to be approved by Council if deemed appropriate.


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