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Fallbrook Farm Heritage Site
Update 4

Mar 23, 2008 04:30 AM
Leslie Scrivener
Feature Writer

Architecture vs. landscape

A community and a conservation authority are fighting over the fate of an 1869 log cabin in Georgetown. At issue: What to do when fate puts heritage buildings in the hands of agencies with other-focused mandates

How do you decide if a building is worth preserving?

In Halton Hills, near Georgetown, a log cabin built around 1869 sits in a dilapidated state on Credit Valley Conservation property. The white clapboard Fallbrook homestead was home to Scottish pioneer farmers and their descendents.

The conservation authority wants it removed. A group of concerned citizens is fighting to restore it.

Credit Valley Conservation wants to renaturalize the Fallbrook property. It says preserving cultural heritage old buildings and the like is not its responsibility under the Conservation Authorities Act, while care for the natural environment wetlands, wildlife and water is.

This doesn't make much sense to Irene Carroll, who lived in the Fallbrook cabin as a child. Her father, from Scotland, was the farm manager and lived there until 1979.

"I still return to Fallbrook to walk around the area," Carroll says. "It gives me a feeling of peace, as though this little part of the country will always be safe from the bustle of daily life."

Sandy McKay sees in the modest building the history of his forbears, who owned the property until 1943. He objected to a heritage-impact assessment that found that the cabin likely one of the earliest pioneer houses in the area had merit for its craftsmanship and square cut logs but was of little historic value because "no significant persons or events" were associated it. "It hit right home to the gut," says McKay, who is a nurse among the Inuit in northern Quebec. "These were simple farmers... who worked themselves to the bone, opening this land. And their contribution, in a collective sense, no matter how modest, is worthy of recognition."

While Credit Valley Conservation owns the homestead, it must apply to the town of Halton Hills and the Niagara Escarpment Commission for permission to dismantle the building.

All conservation authorities include some kind of cultural heritage buildings, archeological sites, hedgerows, or other patterns humans make on the landscape says Dan Schneider, a senior policy adviser for the Ontario Ministry of Culture.

"It's increasingly artificial to separate so-called natural heritage and environment from cultural heritage and the environment made by humans."

Conservation authorities don't have to be responsible for heritage in all cases, because it is not at the core of their mandate. "They'd rather look after water flow and quality, but that doesn't mean cultural heritage has to be sacrificed."

Credit Valley intends to "deconstruct" the cabin, which is listed as a heritage building on the Halton Hills Heritage Register. The building would be "meticulously recorded," carefully taken apart, and rebuilt elsewhere or donated for salvage to be reused in another heritage restoration project, according to a letter it sent out last year.

"We've applied for a demolition permit to take the home down," says Judi Orendorff, director of lands and conservation areas for Credit Valley Conservation. "It's a health and safety issue and a liability for us."

She says it would cost about $100,000 to restore the cabin which has been unoccupied and left increasingly derelict since 2001 and make it safe to use.

Buildings already have come down on the property. A pioneer barn, made from pines harvested from the farm, was demolished, as well as a mid-century stone house belonging to O.D. Vaughan, a former owner of Fallbrook and vice-president of T. Eaton Company.

Carroll and her husband, John, appealed to Halton Hills council in December and were given six months to devise a fundraising plan to restore the cabin. They set up Friends of Fallbrook, but when they asked Credit Valley Conservation for help in devising a business plan, they were told it was their own responsibility.

"What's frustrating is that we have to come up with a plan for their building, which they can reject, instead of participating with us," says John Carroll. "We would like to see this as a partnership."

For Friends of Fallbrook, the best outcome is restoring the cabin on its current site. It's also one of the principles of heritage conservation, notes Schneider.

"Especially with these humble buildings, it's not just how they were constructed, but their real history and relationship to the site, how they are oriented to a river, what the views were."

Some 10,000 children from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board already use the property, which includes a barn and other buildings, for outdoor education. "There is a future for this house where it sits," says John Carroll.

He disputes the authority's argument that it is not in the business of heritage preservation, and assembled a partial list of nine Ontario conservation authorities that include buildings of heritage or cultural interest.

Among them: the Iroquoian Village at Crawford Lake (Conservation Halton) and Black Creek Pioneer Village (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority).

Ken Whitbread, manager of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, suggests the community group enter a long-term lease with the conservation authority and take over management and upkeep of the homestead.

"But they think the town and government agencies should do all of this we're supposed to save it, but in the long term it's better if a community group has a commitment to it rather than a distant commission or authority running it."

The Carrolls, McKay, and their supporters see preserving Fallbrook as part of the public good. Among the new uses they suggest: an educational centre for students visiting the conservation area; a "living museum" with period furnishing and costume; an artists' or writers' retreat; and making it a "green" or ecological model home.

"I want others to have this sense of wonderment when they visit the farm," says Irene Carroll.

"How can students and hikers visiting the property relate to the history of their ancestors when all there is left are a couple of modern-looking buildings?"

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