The area surrounding the historic West Montrose Covered Bridge moved one step closer to a heritage designation this week, with Woolwich councillors agreeing to extend a moratorium on development.
The move gives the township more time to finalize a report on a proposed cultural heritage landscape (CHL) label. A report due next month is expected to recommend much of the land near West Montrose be granted that protection.
Such a designation would be welcomed by opponents of plans to excavate gravel in the vicinity of the village.
Gravel pits are precisely the kind of major development the CHL designation is aimed at. While it would not automatically prevent an application from going ahead, it would demand a heritage impact study. As well, the township would take the issue into account when studying any such applications.
Official studies of the heritage significance of the bridge and its surroundings pre-dates by several years, however, a gravel pit bid by Capital Paving for farmland immediately to the southwest of the bridge. (A second aggregate application for an adjacent piece of land is expected from the Murray Group.)
As Prof. Robert Shipley, who heads the Heritage Resources Centre at the University of Waterloo, noted in speaking to council Tuesday night, the issue of CHLs has been discussed in the region since the late 1990s.
A study carried out in 2006 by Waterloo Region and his own four-year study that was published in 2009 show the landscape around the covered bridge is provincially significant.
“The significance of this area is not a matter of opinion at this point, it’s a matter of fact,” he said, noting provincial regulations mandate protection of the landscape there. “The cultural heritage landscape designation for this area is not just justified, it’s actually required given the legislation.”
Built in 1881, the 198-foot span across the Grand River is Ontario’s last remaining covered bridge. At one time a provincial responsibility, the bridge is now owned by the Region of Waterloo, and remains one of Woolwich’s premier tourist sites.
Protecting the “kissing bridge” experience is the goal of the West Montrose residents’ association known as the BridgeKeepers, which supports the CHL plan.
Tony Dowling, the group’s co-chair, told councillors its members are prepared to live with certain restrictions on their properties in order to avoid development such as gravel pits that would mar the environment around the bridge.
“If a CHL designation will help ensure we don’t lose what’s so special about West Montrose, we’re all for it,” he said, noting that the rules should be flexible enough to allow for modest change on a small scale.
“We want to prevent inappropriate development, but we don’t want residents to get bogged down in lengthy and costly approval processes for appropriate development.”
His position was shared by fellow resident Hans Pottkamper, who said the CHL plan and accompanying Official Plan changes should be robust enough to stand up at the Ontario Municipal Board should developers challenge the township’s position.
Pointing to the development that was allowed to proliferate against an historical landmark in Kitchener, he called on councillors to avoid making the same mistake here.
“This is a very unique area, and we feel it should be protected, or long-term we’re going to end up with the type of commercial and industrial development that has forever ruined the pastoral setting around Kitchener’s Pioneer Tower,” said Pottkamper.
“We’re concerned about large-scale operations, not the much more modest enterprises operated by our farming neighbours who have to resort to greenhouses, furniture-making, farm-equipment stores and similar things in order to augment their incomes. We don’t want to stop that.”
In that light, Mayor Todd Cowan, speaking on behalf of an area farmer, asked what impact the CHL would have on farmers and Old Order Mennonites who live within the proposed CHL boundaries.
In response, director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley said the document is drafted in such a way as to leave out from review the kind of small-scale changes common with farming, as well as minor home renovations and improvements.
The document does not want to “unduly restrict” farming, he said, noting the township wants to see such farms continue in flourish, as they are part of the area’s cultural heritage.
That kind of flexibility was deemed essential by Coun. Mark Bauman, who said there’s no way to simply freeze the area in time – “change will happen.”
The area for the proposed CHL is bounded by Northfield Drive to the west, Line 86 to the north, Katherine Street to the east and an irregular line to the south to a point beyond a line extending from Maryhill Road.
Along with the bridge and older homes in the immediate vicinity, the CHL designation encompasses the surrounding environment and views that makes up the historical context of the structure.
That, argues a University of Waterloo ecologist, includes the woodlands and wetlands in the area.
Prof. Kim Cuddington, a West Montrose resident, suggested the draft CHL plan encompass more of the woodland area near the bridge, noting they are of local, and possibly provincial significance – “you have a mandate for protecting those woodlands.”
Kennaley said planning staff will be reviewing all suggestions prior to returning to council with a more formal CHL document and accompanying Official Plan amendment on Mar. 8. The extension of the interim control bylaw until the end of March provides enough time to get the changes in place should council adopt them.