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In a surprise move, councillors for the Township of King have voted in favour of granting heritage status to an outdoor installation erected in the municipality in the early 1970s by the famed U.S. minimalist sculptor Richard Serra.

Meeting Monday evening in a packed council chamber 50 kilometres north of Toronto, councillors, in a 6-1 vote, agreed to a motion from King Mayor Margaret Black calling for the preparation of a notice of intention that will define the Serra installation, called Shift, and its associated lands as a protected cultural landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act.

"Reaching this decision has been very difficult for me," Black acknowledged at the meeting.

Although the township's heritage committee had recommended King Township Council put the Serra under the heritage umbrella, the expectation among many before Monday was that council would decline the action. The owner of the land on which Shift is located, Hickory Hills Investments (a subsidiary of Toronto-based developers Great Gulf Group of Companies), has steadfastly resisted designation for two years and, until this week, King council had never sought or approved "the designation of any property without the owner's consent."

The mayor said that while she "respects property rights," she felt the cultural and historical importance of Shift "overrides that." Black also expressed a mixture of regret and frustration that the owner-developer had been unable earlier to reach a consensus or compromise with either King's heritage committee or an ad hoc committee set up early in 2008 to deal expressly with Shift.

Last month, Hickory Hills presented a draft agreement to King council in which it affirmed it wouldn't "harm, alter or destroy" Shift, commissioned in 1970 when Serra was 30 and consisting of six large concrete forms zigzagging across rolling countryside situated on the Oak Ridges Moraine near the village of King City. Hickory Hills also said it would require any future owner of the Shift lands to honour this covenant. However, councillor Jeff Laidlaw, noting that the proposed deal also gave the owner no responsibility "whatsoever" in protecting Shift from "damage by third parties, weather or the elements," argued that the owner-developer would have had to provide something "much more comprehensive and better than this" to win his vote. Laidlaw called Shift "a sculpture of international significance and if you're not prepared to maintain it … someone has to take responsibility and under cultural heritage designation we can arrange for some form of maintenance."

Still to be determined are the boundaries defining Shift's "associated lands," which Black hopes can be negotiated with Hickory Hills/Great Gulf. Right now, for the purposes of the mayor's motion, it seems the lands entail all 68 hectares owned by Hickory Hills/Great Gulf. But this is unlikely to stand as the owner already has council approval to develop 75 housing lots to Shift's northwest (on land not protected by moraine legislation).

Speaking after Monday's meeting, Hickory Hills lawyer Chris Barnett expressed "surprise" at council's decision and said he didn't "have any instructions [from his client]with respect to an appeal" to the Ontario Conservation Review Board as yet.

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