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Showing "No Vision": Town Threatens to Demolish Heritage Landmark

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--August 13, 2012.

At its monthly meeting last week, Stanstead town council was questioned by Georges O’Shaughnessy, a former member of the town’s urban advisory (CCU) committee about a resolution passed by the town at its July meeting concerning the Pierce House on Dufferin Street.

larger_customs.pt_.2.jpgThe Pierce House is one of the oldest surviving buildings – if not the oldest -- in Stanstead, and served as the very first customs house in the Eastern Townships, operating as such from 1821 to 1909. The elegant brick building was built sometime between 1810 and 1814, making it two centuries old.

In 2009 – just three short years ago – the building was designated a heritage site by the town of Stanstead. But at its July meeting, the town issued an ultimatum to the owner to either have the building repaired or else demolish it.

During question period, O’Shaughnessy told the council that he was “extremely disappointed” to hear about the town’s ultimatum. He wanted to know if the issue had even been discussed at the CCU, and if not, why not. “There’s obviously a great heritage value to the building,” he said, “since it was registered by the town [and then by the province] as a heritage site.”

Mayor Philippe Dutil replied that the building’s owner (who could not be reached for comment) had responded to the town’s ultimatum, and that he promised to have the building repaired within the thirty days required by the town.

This statement brought snorts of disbelief from members of the audience, some who seemed acquainted with the extent of the repairs required on the old building, including replacing most of the windows and re-pointing sections of the brickwork.

“We don’t want the building demolished, but we wanted to show that we’re serious,” Dutil said.

“Thirty days will never be enough,” one resident commented.

Dutil said that if the owner did not comply, then the town would pursue its legal procedures – presumably forcing the owner to tear down the building, regardless of its heritage value.

Following the meeting, O’Shaughnessy said that, in his view, the town had “absolutely no vision.” He said that he was amazed to learn that the council was actually considering having the building torn down.

Curiously enough, some of the councillors themselves seemed at a loss about what to do about the building. Councillor Wayne Stratton, for one, wondered what would happen if a brick landed on someone’s head.

Councillor Chris Goodsell seemed to think that taxpayers would never accept the town putting any money into the building, which he admitted was a historic one. But he also then wondered if a tax break could not be arranged to help subsidize restoration work on the house.

Municipal designation of a heritage building, in fact, gives a town all sorts of powers it wouldn’t normally have – things like being able to force a delinquent homeowner to maintain a building; subsidizing restoration work; providing technical support; and so on.

The general assumption is that when a municipality goes to all the trouble (and expense) of citing a property as “heritage,” that this is a sign that it cares enough about the property to ensure its protection, and that it will what it can to see that the building is maintained and/or restored.

We could not locate any cases in Quebec of a town designating a building as historic, only to order its demolition three years later. Such a development would certainly make Stanstead unique in the annals of heritage protection (or lack of it) in the province, and could well call into question the town’s credibility.

Stanstead is currently a member of the Association of Quebec’s Most Beautiful Villages. One of the criteria for membership in that select group is that the town have measures in place to protect its heritage – and that it abide by them.