If you seek a heritage conservation district designation, get a buy-in from the start

You may have heard of communities that have tried to set up a heritage conservation district but that have not achieved success in completion of such a project.

From what I’ve learned in my recent research, and twenty-five years of volunteer work as a community organizer, the process of getting a heritage conservation district designated, or any similar project, is successful if the community is brought on board right from the start.

A promising approach, described at a workshop on the conservation heritage district designation process in Stratford on March 24-25, 2012, involves extensive surveys and many community meetings at the outset.

These surveys and meetings enable residents to articulate what they like about their communities and what, if anything, they would like to see done by way of heritage preservation.

In a model that has been outlined by Robert Shipley of the Heritage Resources Centre at the University of Waterloo, the development of the heritage conservation district designation plan is guided by this initial input from residents of the community where the district would be located.

Thereafter, steps are taken to ensure the community has a strong sense of ownership of the plan and of the development of it.

When at the end of the process the heritage team seeks approval, from the community, for the heritage conservation district plan that has been developed, there is some likelihood of success.

Outcomes research related to heritage conservation districts in Ontario

Research — as outlined in PDF reports posted at the Heritage Resources Centre (please refer to link above) — indicates that property values tend to increase after a district gets heritage conservation designation.

This appears to be in part because (a) people who like heritage houses are motivated to bid for what’s available and (b) people feel a sense of stability about the neighbourhood as development proceeds.

Research also indicates a high level of satisfaction among residents in heritage conservation districts. A vocal minority may be opposed. Best practices point to ways to ensure that the voices of all residents are heard at community meetings not just those of the articulate exponents of minority views.

Research also indicates that residents of such districts find it helpful when guidelines regarding what can and can’t be done by way of construction and renovation are clearly stated, and when interpretation of proposed plans is in the hands of municipal officials, by means of delegated authority.

The latter approach tends to work better, and is less likely to give rise to complaints of unfairness, than leaving such decisions in the hands of committees of residents.

A good starting point with regard to the heritage cosnervation district designation process as it applies to the Toronto is a recent document, Heritage Conservation Districts in Toronto: Procedures, Policies and Terms of Reference.

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