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Permit to remove ivy from courthouse granted by city, but with conditions

Timothy Schafer
By Timothy Schafer
April 20th, 2020

The city went through the motions of approving the removal of the picturesque ivy vines from the historical Nelson Courthouse, with the province asking permission on paper, but not really requiring it.

Although the Province of British Columbia had applied for a Heritage Alteration Permit to allow for the removal of ivy from the building façade from the Nelson Courthouse, it did not require one to move ahead with the work at hand.

The province is not bound to a permit but they wanted the element of public transparency when they applied for the permit, explained city planner Alex Thumm during city council’s regular meeting on April 6 (through digital conference).

“There’s certainly conditions where ivy can be part of stone structure such as this … but the top issue is the ivy has not been properly maintained and it has become much too overgrown over the years … which is compromising the foundation, the roof structure and possibly the stones themselves,” he said.

“That said, the city’s Heritage Working Group … agrees with the premise, but as a condition of the approval that the ivy be replanted in order to keep that character defining element on the building, but not to the extent that it is currently.

Conditions of approval

Despite not debating the issue in chambers, the city did insert some conditions on the permit approval:

  • that the province work with local heritage conservation professionals throughout all work, both in order to minimize risk of damage and to maximize conservation opportunities;
  • that no potentially harmful work such as power washing, blasting or wire brushing takes place without input from the conservation specialist;
  • that controlled replanting of appropriate species of ivy take place as soon as possible in select locations that acknowledge potential security and heritage concerns at the courthouse;
  • that the province makes a promise in writing to replant the recommended ivy species which would show their commitment to community and heritage;
  • that all following conservation and restoration work will be in consultation with a local professional conservatory; and
  • that city council adopt a resolution requesting provincial heritage designation of the Nelson Courthouse under section 603 of the Local Government Act.

— Source: City of Nelson

Being one of 12 buildings in Nelson protected by a Municipal Heritage Site bylaw, a Heritage Alteration Permit is required in order to modify any character-defining elements of the building.

And the “climbing ivy on stone walls” is one of the character-defining elements that compose part of the building’s heritage value, according to the statement of significance on the 1908 structure.

But, according to the province, years of “inadequate maintenance of the ivy vines have led to a point where they are overgrown and pose multiple issues to the building and courthouse operations, including security.”

As a result, the province’s planned restoration work requires that the ivy be removed.

Thumm stated that the city’s Heritage Working Group requested that new ivy could be replanted on a smaller, more controlled, and more controllable scale than it is currently. A city staff report noted that a limited replanting of ivy would honour the building’s heritage value while at the same time “day lighting more of the building’s admirable stonework.” Fewer plants would make maintenance of the ivy more manageable and future ivy-related issues avoided on a small landscaping budget.

Nelson architect Chris Fairbanks — whose firm assessed the building and the state of the ivy — said the intention is to pull the roots of the ivy out altogether, but not without some remorse.

“I love that building and I love that ivy but it has gone too far to the extent of destroying some of the structural elements of the Rattenbury courthouse,” he said through a conference call at council’s last regular meeting. “The intention is not to have any of the ivy remain.”

Permanently removing the ivy would take away a longstanding, and thus heritage, element of the building’s character, noted the city staff report.

But denying the application and keeping the ivy as-is, Thumm explained in council, would affect the building’s heritage value in the long term as it would compromise the foundation, as well as posing a public safety risk.

Going for heritage designation

This ivy-removal application presents the opportunity for the city to lobby the Heritage minister for provincially-granted heritage status for the Nelson Courthouse.

“Section 603 of the Local Government Act offers a mechanism that binds even provincially-owned buildings to a (provincial) heritage alteration permit process: a local government may, by council resolution, submit a request to the province to protect real property owned by the provincial government with ‘heritage value or heritage character.’”

That means the court house could become a provincially-designated site protected under the Heritage Conservation Act, and would require the province to adhere to the provincial Heritage branch’s permit regime.

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