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Saving the White House

Residents work through the system to pump the brakes on lot severing that could compromise historic home

Plans are currently tabled to move the White House at 494 King Street East to a difference corner of the property to make room for more houses on the wide lot. Residents fear the development will compromise the home’s heritage value. (Photos by Joel Wittnebel)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

In case you didn’t know, Oshawa has a White House of its own.

There’s no Donald Trump here, but there is a group of concerned residents and neighbours who are banding together to save it from the possible degradation.

The home, located at 494 King Street East was built sometime around 1880, and while some call it the White House, others know the home as the Rogers House, named appropriately after the Rogers family who bought the home in 1857.

Regardless of the name, those who live in the area know the home simply as a foundational piece of their community. The wide white facade and the sloping green lawn with aging trees works as a focal point, a piece of the urban landscape, the fabric of the community that works to give all of them a sense of place.

So, when plans came in to chop the lot into four pieces and shoehorn three more two-storey buildings onto the site, all the while moving the historic home to a different corner, neighbours were shocked.

“It has brought the neighbours together in a hurry,” said resident Dave Smith, who has lived in the area around the White House for the last 48 years.

The proposal, brought forward by the land owner, first came into the public realm when it fell on the desk of the Land Division committee at the Region of Durham earlier this year. Because the plan involved less than five severances, it did not require a plan of subdivision, a process that would have seen it go through the City of Oshawa and require environmental assessment reports, and most likely, a heritage impact report.

During that meeting at regional headquarters, Smith spoke strongly about the importance of preserving the home for the surrounding community.

“The expansive landscaped grounds with large canopied trees, both on the property and adjacent to it, are an integral part of the legacy property upon which the Rogers House is situated and are an integral part of the character of this heritage property,” he said, adding that he will often describe himself as living just to the north of the White House.

“People who have travelled along King Street will immediately respond, oh, I know where that is,” he said.

At that meeting in March, the Land Division committee made a decision to table the proposal for “up to” two years, following a letter from Paul Ralph, the city’s commissioner of development services, requesting that the item be first reviewed by Heritage Oshawa, and the public.

“I think it was an opportunity to have the applicant and the city meet with the area residents to go over the proposal,” Ralph says. “If issues get resolved or the applicant wants it to come back any earlier, they can request that to come back earlier.”

However, the runaround wasn’t done yet.

After the Land Division committee, the eventual fate of the White House found it’s way onto the desks of Heritage Oshawa.

And while the matter appeared on the committee’s March 22 agenda, it wasn’t the first time they had considered a decision on the heritage property. In 2016, a proposal came forward from the same land owner to cut the lot into five pieces, instead of the currently proposed four lots.

At that time, Heritage Oshawa was asked for their input on the proposed plan due to the fact that the house is listed as a Class A in the Heritage Oshawa Inventory, meaning it has the highest potential for being designated an official heritage property under the Ontario Heritage Act.

In May of 2016, Heritage Oshawa was given two options by city staff. The home could either be demolished, or the house could be relocated to the southwest corner of the property. With those two options before them, Smith suggests it’s easy to understand why the second option was chosen at the time. In their endorsement, Heritage Oshawa noted they wanted to “keep the house in situ with the existing landscape,” but “recognizes the economic realities of this being a valuable development site.”

With that noted, Heritage Oshawa gave its stamp of approval to uproot the Rogers house and move it.

It was a decision that Smith and other local residents took the committee to task for during the March 22 meeting, noting that the endorsement to move the home “should stand as an embarrassment to this committee.”

Strong words aside, Smith recognized that the committee simply chose from the “least of two evils.”

After hearing from residents, Heritage Oshawa was once again left with what to do with the proposed plan before them, which also came with a recommendation to endorse the severing of the land, this time into four parts instead of five.

“The current proposal is that the Rogers House will be on a lot that is larger than the one originally proposed,” the report from senior planner Margaret Kish reads. “The current proposal is an improvement over (the previous option) which Heritage Oshawa endorsed.”

This time around, things would not be stamped so easily.

“Unfortunately, this is new information to many of us,” said committee member Jane Clark, noting that some members of the committee were not a part of Heritage Oshawa at the time the original endorsement was given in 2016.

For member Jennifer Weymark, the heritage information available to them was not adequate to justify making a decision, noting that the previous report assessing the heritage value was completed over 13 years ago.

“This is very much an old style report,” she said. “A new modern style report I think is the way this committee may be able to address the concerns being brought to us.”

With that said, Heritage Oshawa has moved ahead with commissioning such a report that will look at all matters of heritage value surrounding the White House.

And, in perhaps a move toward redemption, the committee recommended that council place the home on the Non-Designated Registry, a status that essentially sits between Class A and full designation. Areas like Lakeview Park, Memorial Park and the Second Marsh are listed on the Non-Designated Registry.

However, when the motion came before city council, they claimed there wasn’t enough information to make a decision and sent the recommendation right back to Heritage Oshawa.

And the twists and turns did not end there.

Back before the Development Services committee on May 7, Smith was once again in attendance urging councillors to protect the home and the land upon which it sits.

“We’re talking about protecting a landscape,” he said. “It is that broad landscape which is providing the setting of this house, which is an integral part of the property.”

With that said, Smith noted that he felt “ambushed” by a letter from Weston Consulting who had been retained by the landowner. Weston, in their letter, was seeking for council to table the item so that further studies on the trees of the property could be completed along with a heritage impact assessment.

“The property owner had no idea there was going to be such interest from the community,” said Jane MacFarlane with Weston Consulting.

Smith urged councillors to shun the idea, urging for them to stick to Heritage Oshawa and his own recommendation to put the home on the non-designated registry. This designation would trigger a 60-day consultation period should a demolition permit be applied for.

However, his words and the urging of Heritage Oshawa were in vain, as the item was eventually tabled by the committee.

There was a small win in the process though, as the tabling was contingent on the fact that the landowner can not apply for a demolition permit until the studies were completed and the item resolved.

As it stands, Heritage Oshawa is also moving forward with its own heritage impact assessment to update the one completed in 2005.

Further requests for comment from Weston Consulting on their plan timelines was not returned as of The Oshawa Express press deadline.