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Fairbank property owner declined heritage designation, alternate land

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

A meeting held Monday revealed no budget set for works to be done on the Fairbank house and property as of yet. File photo

A meeting held Monday revealed no budget set for works to be done on the Fairbank house and property as of yet. File photo

The Town of Petrolia held a special meeting last Monday after David Burnie, owner of the historic Fairbank property, and Consulting Engineer Geoff Dale requested it. 

With the council chambers full, Dave Hext, a member of the Petrolia Heritage Committee and caretaker of local historic home, Nemo Hall, said he and others had been expecting a meeting with more information, but were disappointed when this wasn’t the case.

“I didn’t really understand the point of that meeting, I was kind of deflated,” he said.

Instead, Dale and Burnie allowed councillors to pose questions regarding the proposal thus far, not offering any new information in regards to a site plan.

Hext said he would have liked to see more of an open discussion between Burnie and the community. This could foster a better relationship between citizens and Burnie, as well as a sense of trust. He said those in attendance felt as though they couldn’t ask the burning questions on their mind.

“They could show us a plan of how it could look…people could have said, well that doesn’t look too bad,” he said. “You catch more bees with honey.”

During the meeting, Councillor Grant Purdy questioned Burnie on whether it was true that he had turned down heritage designation.

Burnie admitted he had turned it down on account of it being personal property. Dale added that heritage designation puts a lot of restrictions on what you can do with a property.

Hext said the Petrolia Heritage Committee has previously asked Burnie to apply and have the property declared a historic site. If he’d done so, Hext said Burnie would have received ten per cent off his taxes each year. They first went to Burnie about this in 2003.

“If they had done that over the years, they would have $10,000 to $15,000 saved,” Hext said. “It’s a way of accenting people’s income if you’re trying to maintain a historic home.”

Hext said Petrolia is one of the few places that offers a grant like this. While there would be certain aspects of the home that could be protected under the Heritage Act, Hext said this doesn’t mean other parts of the house cannot be changed.

“It’s to maintain something that is unique to the home, and it’s maintained for other people to see,” he said.

Hext said he has stressed that this is a national site and it should be recognized. He brought forward a petition to council with 2100 signatures and counting during the meeting. The online petition, through ‘Friends of Sunnyside’ Facebook page, has garnered messages of support across the country and even from people in the United States.

“It’s part of our trademark and it would be a disaster if it’s gone,” Hext said. “If you just walked around the outside of that building, it would just break your heart…to realize that it’s probably not going to be restored.”

While some have expressed concern over how the apartment building would look, Burnie reassured those at the meeting that the design complements the Fairbank house. He said it doesn’t encroach on or overrun the mansion, but would make it look more valuable with an aesthetic that works together.

But it is still early days, and while residents had been expecting a site plan to be presented, Monday’s meeting only brought more questions. Some councillors voiced concern over the question of cost, and whether the plan would be followed through.

Councillor Ross O’Hara asked if there would be a bond in place to assure works would go ahead as promised, but Burnie and Dale both said this was not ‘normal practice’.

“Our intent has always been to show a willingness to work with the town,” Dale said. “I believe it sets a good indication on whether Mr. Burnie is a man of his word.”

O’Hara voiced concern over the five-year plan, saying this is a long stretch of time, and there could potentially be disrupting factors such as finance and weather.

When asked about a ball park figure by Councillor Tim Brown, Dale said at this point they haven’t set out a budget yet, calling it premature at this time to do so. But Hext said the fact that they haven’t gone over cost is a bit disturbing.

“If you wanted to sink your shovel in this Spring, he has to have approval from council,” he said. “Don’t you think you would have had some rough quotes by now?”

Mayor John McCharles said the town had tried to work out a deal with Burnie late last year before the Committee of Adjustment meeting took place. They offered him land elsewhere in town to build the apartment building in hopes of negotiating something.

“We took Mr. Burnie around to different sites in town that could possibly accommodate an apartment building, and offered to do an exchange of some type,” McCharles said. “None of the sites were appealing to [Mr. Burnie]…that proposal went sideways.”

McCharles said while they had attempted to make a deal where the town could acquire the Fairbank house, no set amount of money was ever discussed.

“We never made any financial offer as far as his property is concerned. It was just an idea,” he said.