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Fate of five-hectare Richard Serra sculpture could be decided next week Add to ...

After considerable delay, an important and controversial vote is expected to be taken Monday by councillors in King Township, about 50 kilometres north of Toronto, on the fate of a meandering outdoor cement installation erected almost 40 years ago by internationally acclaimed American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra.

Discussions and negotiations over the Serra have been going on for almost five years. In early 2008, King Township's heritage committee first pressed their council for heritage designation. Two years ago, Serra himself wrote to the committee, thanking it for its "sustained efforts" to "preserve the existence of this work. I hope you will prevail."

In regard to Monday's vote, it at first seemed the seven council members would be deciding on whether to designate the little-seen installation, called Shift , a "cultural landscape" under the Ontario Heritage Act. That's what has been recommended by the township's heritage-advisory committee.

However, the developer who owns the land on which Shift is located, Hickory Hills Investments, a subsidiary of Toronto's Great Gulf Group of Companies, recently filed an alternative agreement that will come to the floor before the vote about the designation. If the company's proposal is accepted unaltered, it will quash the move to designate Shift and its associated lands as a protected heritage site. If that proposal is voted down, council will be asked to vote on the designation recommendation.

Shift has been on King's registry of "properties of cultural value and interest" since 2006. But municipal records show that township council has never "pursued the designation of any property without the owner's consent." That history has led some to conclude that even if the designation initiative ever did come to a vote, it would be defeated.

Built between 1970 and 1972, Shift was commissioned by Toronto art collector Roger Davidson on land owned by his family until its sale to developers around 1980. Since then, virtually no maintenance or repair has been done on Shift 's six zigzagging walls, each 1.5 metres high and 20 centimetres thick. During milder months, the work - which traverses an estimated five hectares, embedded inside the developer's property - is surrounded by weeds and wildflowers; adjacent fields have been sewn with such crops as soy, potatoes and corn.

At 70, the San Francisco-born Serra is generally regarded as the world's greatest living sculptor, most famous for his large-scale, often site-specific abstract assemblages made of Cor-Ten steel. But his works are few in Canada.

The King committee has long felt designation is needed to help ensure Shift won't be destroyed - or fall into disrepair or ruin - by the owner of the 68 hectares of rolling land on which it's found. Fifty of those hectares are protected by the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act and Plan. On the 18 hectares not falling under that legislation, Hickory Hills/Great Gulf has plans to carve out approximately 75 lots for housing . It also wants to develop a horse farm and stables, and two other two-acre (0.8-hectare) parcels. "No Trespassing" signs were placed around the property's perimeter last year.

Calls by The Globe and Mail to Hickory Hills/Great Gulf for comment this week were not returned. But according to earlier news reports and documents filed with King Township, the company objects to designation on several grounds, and cites concerns involving vandalism, insurance, liability and maintenance.

But the most salient one involves accessibility. King's heritage committee regards Shift as a "significant work of art" to which there should be "regular public access." Hickory Hills, by contrast, has steadfastly resisted access and, by extension, Shift 's designation as a "cultural landscape." In the words of one of its lawyers, such a designation would "make [its]land openly accessible to strangers."

The Ontario Heritage Act, however, states that a cultural landscape is not defined by reference to ownership, public or private, or by the nature of access to it; a designated cultural landscape can be completely private. It may also involve multiple jurisdictions and complex patterns of ownership and access (the Rideau Canal is an example). It may even be an entirely public space, such as Queen's Park in Toronto.

Regardless, Hickory Hills/Great Gulf remains adamant that, as its proposed agreement states, there will be no public access to Shift lands "unless the owners have determined to do so." While the agreement says Hickory Hills/Great Gulf won't "harm, alter or destroy" the Serra, it won't maintain the installation or protect it against vandalism, "weather or the elements," nor erect signage indicating its existence. The agreement also proposes that Shift 's "associated lands" be restricted to a tight buffer zone - around the concrete forms.

In a letter last year to King Township Mayor Margaret Black, Haydn Matthews, executive vice-president (land development) for Hickory Hills, promised his company would "not destroy, remove or alter the Shift sculpture while … discussions are taking place."

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