Sackville Councillor Megan Mitton caught many observers by surprise last week when she announced that the town plans to repeal the heritage bylaw it first passed in 2010.
Scrapping the bylaw would mean dissolving the Heritage Board and eliminating two designated conservation areas in parts of downtown. It means that property owners in those areas on Bridge Street, Main Street and York Street would no longer have to apply for a heritage permit if they want to alter the appearance of their properties or demolish a building.
Mitton read a report signed by town manager Jamie Burke. It said the decision came after a comprehensive five month review during which council concluded the bylaw wasn’t working.
“The point has been raised that the bylaw is achieving very little in terms of heritage conservation and preservation,” Mitton said, “the bylaw focuses more on the appearance of the streetscape as opposed to traditional heritage regulation.”
She said that over the last year, there have been no heritage permits issued and only one $5,000 heritage grant was awarded in the last two years.
Mitton also said it has been difficult recruiting volunteers to serve on the Heritage Board, an indirect reference to the turmoil that began after JN Lafford Realty Inc. applied for a permit to demolish the Sackville United Church in August 2014.
Several members of the Heritage Board resigned in the following months citing town interference in its decisions while council later fired Louis Béliveau, another member who challenged his dismissal in costly court fights that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada before a settlement was finally reached.
Mitton’s report vaguely suggested the town focus instead on assisting the redevelopment, appearance and maintenance of heritage properties while continuing to support the Tantramar Heritage Trust.
Council passed a resolution setting June 11th as the date for a public hearing on the matter.
Warktimes reached out to several prominent townsfolk, some of whom, such as former Councillor Merrill Fullerton were involved in crafting, passing and implementing the bylaw in 2010. Their general reaction could be summed up as one of concern and even dismay.
Fullerton wondered if scrapping the bylaw means a return to the “wild, wild west” of development with no heritage guidelines.
“The bylaw wasn’t perfect,” he said, “but it was a good starting point.”
He added that the Heritage Board provided useful guidelines for property owners and that the original intent was to demonstrate the bylaw’s worth in preserving the town’s character and then later, apply it to the historic buildings at Mount Allison.
“The bylaw wasn’t working because they didn’t make it work,” former councillor Virgil Hammock said bluntly during an interview.
Another prominent citizen said, “I’m very sorry to see it (the bylaw) go. My hope would be that they would introduce a new bylaw, one with more teeth in it.”
Others also said the bylaw, which was amended in 2016, was weak and even meaningless.
For his part, Mayor Higham gave this elliptical answer when asked why council wants to scrap the heritage bylaw and all that goes with it:
“I think that there’s been frustration with how it’s been operationalized for quite some time,” Higham said. “And when we started to look at the review in the last five, six months, we were finding out that there had actually been no permits issued at all and that, in essence, when we really drilled into it, the intent of the original bylaw was simply one of an appearance as opposed to a true heritage bylaw that would dive into more than just a streetscape appearance. So, we were frustrated over the history of how it had been done, but also understanding that it was actually achieving its original objective, which was a simply very shallow heritage interpretation. So, it didn’t seem to us that this was doing much good, quite frankly and we looked at what some of the other options would be at this point and suggest that the town’s better off if we were to take an opportunity, actually we heard today one of the speakers in the presentations said that we don’t invest in heritage. They’re right, we didn’t give out very many grants, so we’re now thinking that maybe that’s a more appropriate way for the town to support the type of heritage that we’ve been talking about at this point.”