News Local

Council not buying but chooses path to restoration

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

Petrolia council on Monday moved to seek an historical designation for the Fairbank house in Petrolia, a mansion built by oil baron John Henry Fairbank approximately 130 years ago. The designation is being sought while the property's owner is pursuing plans to have a multi-unit apartment structure built on the same property, (File photo)

Petrolia council on Monday moved to seek an historical designation for the Fairbank house in Petrolia, a mansion built by oil baron John Henry Fairbank approximately 130 years ago. The designation is being sought while the property's owner is pursuing plans to have a multi-unit apartment structure built on the same property, (File photo)

The man whose family has owned Petrolia’s iconic Fairbank mansion for the last 50 years would consider selling the property to the town for several million dollars, but Petrolia’s mayor says he would never consider making the purchase, even at a discounted price.

The offer was revealed earlier this week during a meeting of the town council when the issue of the Fairbank property was raised and a report reviewed.

Property owner David Burnie presented three options to the town earlier this month, following his proposal to build a separate apartment structure that would share the property with the mansion, built by oil baron John Henry Fairbank over 125 years ago.

Burnie’s first option is to restore and build an addition to the mansion. The second is to sever the property and build a new unit on the newly severed land. The third option is to sell the property, including the mansion, to the town or to a trust “for $5 million after taxes.”

Council on Monday decided to push for renovations to the Fairbank mansion by choosing the first option, but Burnie said he wasn’t pleased with the decision.

He said he would have preferred to build on in a separate piece of the Fairbank property, as he originally proposed. And after spending some money already and hearing concerns over the mansion’s future, Burnie said he now has no plans to move forward.

“There’s no way I’m going to do that under the current situation,” he said. “I will consider where we’re going… I still have the Ontario Municipal Board to consider, so there are several things on the table.”

As for Burnie’s third option, for the town or a trust to purchase the property, Mayor John McCharles said he would not recommend that the town purchase the land even if offered at a discounted price.

The town’s report to council said the third option was “impractical and unreasonable.” McCharles added that without a third-party participant or substantial funding from the federal government, buying the Fairbank property wouldn’t be a smart move for the municipality.

“To buy it is one thing, to restore it is another,” the mayor said. “To put the taxpayer on a limb, I wouldn’t recommend that whatsoever.”

Chief Administrative Officer Manny Baron said the first option was recommended because it would prevent the development of another building on the site and it would also mean that a variance request would be unnecessary. Moreover, the first option would encourage the Fairbank mansion’s restoration.

“In my opinion, if you add to the mansion, you have no choice but to fix it up,” said Baron. “It’s clear that the public wants the house fixed up.”

Baron said there are examples of similar restoration projects, including the Delta Armories in London.

“They kept the heritage look of the Armories, but have included a tower in the back… it looks really good,” he said.

After council passed the motion on Monday, Burnie addressed its members and was critical. He said his rights were violated in going through the municipal process, and further said he had been subjected to harassment and unfair comment.

“They jump to conclusions and made statements that were false… they have no basis,” Burnie said. “They are taking steps that I believe are inappropriate.”

Burnie said there have been accusations that he had no intention to restore the Fairbank Mansion, but he said he’s been working to pursue that objective for some time.

“I find your sincerity hard to accept,” Coun. Grant Purdy said.

“The residents of Petrolia appreciate the significance of the historic and architectural value of that property,” Purdy said later in an interview. “It’s up to us to represent the public’s wishes and best interest.”

Burnie said he believes his family has contributed to the mansion’s continued existence since its purchase in 1967. He said the building had no insulation when it was purchased, and added that the mansion may not have survived without he and his family’s ownership.

“I think the people of Petrolia are being hoodwinked by some people,” Burnie said. “This building has been standing because of my family purchasing this house.”

Burnie added that after the mansion suffered a major fire it ought to have been demolished, since the damage was more serious than originally thought.

“I’ve made numerous adjustments to plans to suit whatever their requirements were,” he said. “We’ve been the brunt of everything, and I think we’re looking in the wrong direction in some cases.”

 

mschilz@postmedia.com