By Jessica Lovell
History has won out in a dispute between the city and a north-end neighbourhood residents’ group over the fate of an old farmhouse in a neighbourhood park.
The provincial Conservation Review Board recently released its recommendation for the heritage designation of the Wilson farmhouse, following a hearing held as a result of objections from the surrounding neighbourhood.
“The recommendation to council is that council proceed with the designation of the property,” said associate city solicitor Susan Smith, but she noted “it’s not a binding decision.”
The city-owned house, located at 80 Simmonds Dr. in the corner of a community park in the Northern Heights subdivision off Victoria Road, has long been a source of frustration for subdivision residents, who saw development of the park delayed by the uncertain fate of the house.
Donated to the city as part of the parkland dedication in 2005, the house was originally intended to be used as a community centre. But when the city couldn’t find a suitable community use for it, council made the decision in 2010 to sever and sell the property, after first having it designated under the Ontario Heritage Act to ensure its preservation by future owners.
Neighbourhood residents objected on the grounds that the property was supposed to be a part of the community park they had been promised, and that the deteriorating old house was out of place in a modern subdivision.
In response to some of the objections, council agreed to reconsider its decision to sever and sell the property, but voted against reconsidering its pursuit of a heritage designation.
The Conservation Review Board hearing was held in early June 2012, with the city supporting the designation and a group of residents known as the Northern Heights Liaison Group opposing it.
“As it stands, it seems that the Conservation Review Board recommendation and report is in support of the case that was made by city staff,” said the city’s senior heritage planner Stephen Robinson, who testified for the city at the hearing.
Robinson argued that the building had historical value because of its association with the Wilson family, the “first settlers to buy the land from the Crown,” he said. “They farmed that land for over a century.”
Though the property no longer resembles a farm, he argued that the house is “a representative example of a late 19th century vernacular Ontario Gothic farmhouse.”
The Northern Heights group attempted to argue that the house was so deteriorated that many of its historical features had been lost and the cost to restore it would be prohibitive.
“The city has maintained the outside of the building in a way that sustains it until the end use is determined,” said Robinson.
A staff report on the designation will have to come to council, and regardless of the review board’s recommendation council may still decide not to go ahead with the designation. “Council can either support that decision or take another position,” said Ward 2 councillor Ian Findlay.
He is happy to see a recommendation finally come through from the board, as it might bring the city closer to determining what to do with the house.
“I have been working on a plan to retain the farmhouse for community use, but I haven’t been able to get very far,” he said. The uncertainty about the heritage designation has made it difficult to talk about costs and funding regarding and potential plans for the house.
“The work that I’ve been doing has been on pause for six months,” said Findlay.
He would like to see the city retain the property for a community use, such as a library, community meeting space or recreation centre. But he said he’s a long way from having a plan in place, and won’t say where he stands on the designation of the property until city staff have prepared their report – likely in early 2013.
“I fully support the community’s position that it shouldn’t just be left sitting there derelict,” he said. “We need to get on with either saving it or tearing it down.”