City View residents set to vote on paying special levy to buy historic Ottawa property

A photo of Kilmorie house at 21 Withrow Ave. in Nepean. The historic Ottawa home is a heritage building and was once home to Confederation Poet William Wilfred Campbell. MTBA Associates Inc.

UPDATE: On Feb. 12, 2020, Ottawa city council approved FEDCO’s recommendation that the clerk’s office undertake a special levy vote on acquiring 21 Withrow Ave. in coordination with the City View area community.

The city’s finance and economic development committee (FEDCO) has agreed that a group of Nepean residents should get to vote on whether they want to foot a $4.5-million bill to acquire and operate a historic Ottawa property slated for development in their neighbourhood.

The property is known as Kilmorie house and is located at 21 Withrow Ave. in the City View area, southwest of downtown. The heritage house was once home to Confederation Poet William Wilfred Campbell and is the second-oldest stone house in the national capital, according to a local heritage group leading the charge to acquire it.

In late November, Ottawa city council approved an application by Theberge Developments Ltd. – which jointly owns the property with a family – to build a nine-home subdivision on the green space surrounding Kilmorie house.

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The Kilmorie Heritage Society and the City View Community Association have been fighting for years to find a way to acquire and turn Kilmorie house and its green space into a community facility and public gardens.

City staff say the owners of 21 Withrow Ave. have signalled they would sell the two-acre property to the city, on behalf of the community, for about $3.75 million. It’s money that would have to be raised by a special levy on property tax bills in the area, which would likely cost the average homeowner about $155 every year for a decade.

“This is not an ideal situation in an area that has little green space and no chance of acquiring more,” said Joan Clark, president of the local community association and heritage society.

“The people will have to place great importance on preserving this landmark and saving this last green space.”

Ottawa’s planning committee has approved an application for a 10-lot subdivision at 21 Withrow Ave. in Nepean, in west Ottawa. Kilmorie house, the heritage home on the site, was once home to a Confederation Poet. Screenshot / Google Maps

Mayor Jim Watson, who chairs FEDCO, said he’s concerned the developer is “simply flipping the land.” While city staff declined to get into specifics about their assessment of 21 Withrow Ave., they confirmed the appraised value is less than the $3.75 million that Theberge has proposed.

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“At the end of the day, we want to make sure that this is not a real estate deal to make one person well off,” Watson told reporters, adding he doesn’t know how much the developer initially paid for the land.

Reached for comment Thursday afternoon, Joey Theberge, president of Theberge Homes, also declined to talk specific numbers. He did confirm that Theberge purchased the property for less than he’s trying to sell it for, but emphasized the company has spent “hundreds and hundreds of thousands” to go through the site plan and zoning application process for the proposed development.

On top of that, there’s a “loss of future earnings” for the company and the property would likely sell for more on the open market than he’s asking for right now, Theberge added.

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Asked why he’s willing to give that up, Theberge said the community has “fought very hard” for Kilmorie house.

“I can see the passion they have. It runs quite deep in the community,” he said.

“They’ve been fighting for three or four years to try to make it a park. I felt the least I can do is give them this final opportunity to see if the city will come up with the money or if the community wants to vote [on] it.”
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As she urged councillors to support holding a vote special levy, Clark argued that Kilmorie house is not only important to Ottawa and Nepean’s history, but to Canada’s as well.

“Let’s ask the people to decide,” she said.

Area residents would pay special levy on tax bill to fund acquisition, renos

The people who would get a say in that decision are the owners of 3,307 properties in the largely residential area bordered by Woodroffe Avenue, Baseline Road, Merivale Road and the rail corridor, according to a staff report submitted to FEDCO.

The City of Ottawa is proposing that all property owners in this area of Nepean have the chance to vote on a special levy to acquire a historic two-acre property at 21 Withrow Ave. City of Ottawa

Right now, the city proposes raising a total of $4.5 million from a special levy: $3.75 million to acquire 21 Withrow Ave. and an additional $750,000 to cover the land-transfer tax, HST and restorations.

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The special levy for the acquisition specifically would work out to an extra $122.96 on the average property’s owner tax bill every year from 2021 to 2030.

But because Kilmorie house would also have to be brought up to code for public use and maintained in the future, the average household would also be on the hook for an extra $31.65 in operating costs every year starting in 2021 and lasting beyond the 10-year period, the staff report said. The municipality doesn’t have the money to pay for the building’s operating costs, according to city staff.

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FEDCO heard that the City View Community Association canvassed residents in 2016 and collected 400 signatures in favour of a special levy to purchase the Kilmorie house property – but that survey was based on a $60 per year levy.

“The prices doubled since the land is now rezoned for development,” Clark said Thursday.

Some residents balked at the bigger price tag. One, in particular, expressed concern that renters in the largely working-class neighbourhood wouldn’t get a say in the special levy and landlords might offset their more expensive tax bills by charging higher rents.

“This is a great burden on the community,” said George Neville, adding he thinks the increase in cost is “ridiculous” and “scandalous.”

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Clark said the community association and heritage society have tried applying for grants for Kilmorie but aren’t eligible because they don’t own the property. If the community votes in favour of the special levy, they would pursue provincial and federal grants and perhaps rent out the home as a small venue to generate income.

The two groups have also fundraised $20,000 in cash from private individuals to acquire Kilmorie and collected about $40,000 in pledges “for future generations,” Clark told the committee.

Three-week vote would conclude March 13

FEDCO, a 12-member committee, unanimously carried a motion recommending to city council that a special area levy vote be held “in coordination with the community.”

Watson said he was “happy” to support conducting the vote and let the affected taxpayers make the call, but said he wants residents to “understand very clearly what the cost is going to be.”

“That’s $1,500 added to your tax bill for the average home,” the mayor said. “That’s a lot of money for a lot of people.”

Click to play video: 'The Frontenac Heritage Foundation who oppose to two Kingston high-rises is urging city council to stay on the sidelines when a new LPAT hearing is held'
The Frontenac Heritage Foundation who oppose to two Kingston high-rises is urging city council to stay on the sidelines when a new LPAT hearing is held

Council will first have to approve conducting the vote on Feb. 12 and later, the results, but Watson said the community’s decision in referendums like these usually stands and it’s rare for council to overturn it.

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“I certainly would respect the decision, personally, when it came to a vote, number one,” he said.

“Secondly, I think it’s also important that we have to have some kind of an agreement, a legal agreement as to who is going to run the actual operation.”

The staff report proposed holding the vote from Feb. 24 to Mar. 13. The results would be submitted to FEDCO on April 7 and then to council the next day, according to the staff report.

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Holding the vote over a three-week period would cost about $7,000, the report noted. The motion passed Tuesday proposed that this expense “be assessed to the constituency services budget of the College Ward councillor’s office.”

College Coun. Rick Chiarelli was not present Tuesday’s meeting. As of Jan. 24, he was reportedly still in hospital fighting an infection he developed after open-heart surgery in December.

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