Finding inspiration on the West Coast
Could Oregon be a model for preserving Aylmer’s heritage?
Aylmer businessman André Lacasse recommends that the municipality freeze property tax to encourage heritage homeowners like himself to restore their buildings. Such an incentive does exist in the state of Oregon and while it faced its challenges, the Special Assessment of Historic Property Program is regarded as a success.
Since its inauguration in 1975, more than a quarter of eligible properties have participated in the program. “There are currently 783 historic buildings under special assessment. During the 30-plus years of the program, there have been 2,083 participants, which is about 20% of the properties that are eligible for participation,” indicates a 2008 report.
The report is a review of the Special Assessment of Historic Properties program and other preservation incentives. Interestingly, the Special Assessment of Historic Property Program was the first of its kind in the United States. It remains a model for other states and potentially for Gatineau. Since its inauguration the legislature reauthorized the incentive several times, but made considerable changes in 2009.
“It used to be a freeze of your assessed value and now it’s a little more complicated. It’s a special assessment of the property value. It’s recalculated down to a lower amount, called a changed property ratio,” explained Joy Sears, State Historic Preservation Office Restoration Specialist.
The changes appear to have deterred participants. “We had many more applications than we do now and I would take that as a big indicator,” said Sears during a phone interview from Oregon.
The starting point for the program remains maintaining historic buildings which are described in the 2008 report as “special places with special needs”.
As many historic building owners are aware, costs to renovate or bring a building up to code can cost an arm and a leg. The Oregon tax benefit helps offset some of those extra costs. “The idea is not to penalize property owners doing improvements during the program and get a reprieve on additional taxes they would have gotten,” noted Sears, who worked in the program for a decade.
This tax break is welcomed by heritage property owners. Especially since restoring a building, within the rules, can be a major headache as made evident by the Chez Henri saga and an affair over the British Hotel sparked by former councillor Alain Riel. “The tax incentive is one of the few carrots available to encourage appropriate preservation. Too often, government uses only the sticks of regulations,” notes the report.
To benefit from the program, the proprietor must complete an application and present a preservation plan outlining the steps before renovations start. “This is not a wish list, it’s ‘I’m going to do this project’,” noted Sears. “To get the most from the program, it is important to get in at the lowest pre-rehabilitation level -- that’s key for under-utilized or abandoned properties.” indicated Sears. The staff review the plan and the historic character of the building. “We understand if folks are living in the property,” noted Sears. Once signed up for the 10-year plan, officers follow the development with progress reports.
Rehabilitation benefits everyone
“Historic rehabilitation stimulates local economies and enhances a community’s character. This tax incentive encourages reinvestment in buildings and districts that were once the pride of their communities but have become ragged. Once proud neighbourhoods regain their stature and stability because of preservation efforts, and historic Main Streets take on new economic vitality. Many historic areas are major tourist attractions as well as stimulating local economies in a new way,” summarizes the report.
Perhaps it could be an effective tool for Aylmer and all of Gatineau?