The individuals who own two historical buildings in Lunenburg County express their enthusiasm about introducing new businesses to their community. However, they request additional time and assistance to comply with the existing fire safety and accessibility regulations.
The Old Confidence Lodge and Riverport Inn in the South Shore fishing community of Riverport, N.S., were both built as commercial businesses around 100 years ago. The lodge was built in 1929 as a theatre, while the inn opened as the Myrtle Hotel in 1908.
However, the buildings’ zoning was altered by the previous owners over time to allow for residential use. This change occurred many years ago for the hotel, while the lodge only recently became residential when an apartment was constructed above the main performance area.
The two locations have been acquired by new owners who have reverted their purpose to commercial use. As a result, both places are now required to adhere to the latest fire and building code regulations.
Chris Jackman, the owner of the Lodge along with his wife Shari Porter, expressed the importance of avoiding any conflicts and ensuring that the space aligns perfectly with their vision. The process of achieving this goal and establishing a direction has been an intriguing challenge.
The Toronto couple bought the building last fall and moved into the upstairs apartment with their two children, hopeful that they could start offering music and theatre programs right away. Jackman said both he and Porter grew up in smaller communities — in Newfoundland and northern Ontario, respectively — and were drawn to the close-knit feeling of Riverport.
However, Jackman mentioned that the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg informed them that the ceiling would have to be coated with fire-resistant paint. Additionally, they were required to make certain modifications such as constructing new washrooms, including an accessible one, and installing a ramp in order to meet the requirements before being able to utilize the premises.
So the couple have been running music theatre camps out of the nearby community hall while renovations are underway. Jackman said they have covered most of the $100,000 price tag for the upgrades, but were left with a gap of about $25,000. They have received a $6,000 provincial grant to help with accessibility changes, and have crowdfunded another $12,000, which Jackman said has been “really wonderful.”
However, Jackman expressed that it would have been personally advantageous to have had some time to operate the lodge and generate income before the implementation of current regulations.
Jackman expressed his desire to witness an increase in funding, additional sources of support, and the implementation of policies that can lead to such outcomes.
Just down the road, Riverport Inn owner Ben Brooks is hoping to open a small restaurant and host events in the space he runs with his wife Leanne Brooks, but said municipal officials told him major changes would be needed to allow that.
Brooks said they bought the inn in early 2021, which had been sitting empty for about seven years. They did most of the renovations and redecorating themselves, and eventually hosted music and comedy events.
However, this year, the local authorities informed them that they must put steel doors in every room on the ground floor, as there are several interconnected smaller rooms. They were also instructed to create a barrier between the upper floors where Brooks resides and the guest rooms, to prevent the spread of fire. Additionally, they were advised to construct a separate entrance specifically for the inn guests.
Brooks stated that attempting to accomplish that task would result in cost implications exceeding $100,000. Moreover, the outcome would not be suitable for hosting events, rendering it illogical.
He stated that there should be room for adjustment when it comes to a building that holds significant historical value to the community. He also mentioned that the name “Riverport” was decided upon during a meeting held in the dining room of the inn, several years ago.
Brooks said they have put in a commercial kitchen, but opening the restaurant would require a ramp to allow barrier-free entry. Instead, he’d like to open it now to bring in money and save up to install a ramp in a few years. He has not yet applied for an accessibility grant to help cover any costs.
Brooks stated that if historic houses in Nova Scotia were viewed as assets instead of liabilities, and if there were reasonable regulations in place to allow their utilization, it could greatly enhance the business environment in the area.
But according to wheelchair user and advocate Gerry Post, these regulations are rational and crucial for him and the 30 percent of Nova Scotians who have disabilities (approximately 229,400 individuals in 2017). Post claims that at least half of these individuals (15 percent of Nova Scotians) face mobility challenges and require ramps or elevators to access buildings.
The post expressed happiness at the revival of both the inn and the lodge, acknowledging the significant difficulty in renovating old structures.
“But that’s just the cost of doing business to allow, you know, 30 per cent of the population that has a disability Nova Scotia inside the door,” said Post, who was the first head of Nova Scotia’s Accessibility Directorate.
The responsibility of that group is to establish the Accessibility Act, with the goal of achieving a fully accessible province by 2030.
Post mentioned that whenever he goes to a restaurant or a show, he always takes his family or friends with him. Therefore, establishments that lack accessible entrances are excluding a larger group of people, not just those with disabilities.
Post said that running a small business can be difficult, but sitting in a chair 24/7 is also challenging and they simply want to be included.
Post acknowledged that funding for accessibility may need to be more generous for businesses located in historic buildings. However, he expressed gratitude for the existence of the program.
Grants for 2023-24 year ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $60,000 for business including spas, funeral homes, motels and restaurants.
Neither buildings are registered heritage properties, although Jackman said he might eventually look into the process.
Sandra Barrs, the president of the Nova Scotia Heritage Trust, mentioned that designating properties as heritage sites, particularly at the provincial level, might provide access to additional grants and assist in addressing financial issues.
Barrs also mentioned that heritage buildings may be able to meet current regulations in alternative ways, ensuring safety and accessibility, although the modifications might have a slightly different appearance.
“But if it’s not registered, it doesn’t apply. So you can’t be asking for accommodation if you haven’t played by all the rules,” Barrs said.
There is no room for flexibility when it comes to matters concerning life-safety.
Graham Hopkins, manager of building inspections for Municipality of the District of Lunenburg, couldn’t talk about specific cases but said there is no wiggle room in fire safety regulations.
“We would be more flexible on matters that do not involve life-safety issues. However, in the scenario where you are sound asleep and a fire breaks out, it is crucial to be promptly informed in order to evacuate safely. Additionally, it is necessary to have barriers in place to delay the spread of fire and allow for a safe exit,” stated Hopkins.
When asked about the possibility of extensions or exemptions for historic buildings, a spokesperson for the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing said modern building codes allow for “a level of safety and accessibility for owners and occupants that was not available or considered 100 years ago.”
Chrissy Matheson cautioned that neglecting these factors could potentially endanger lives.
Nearly 300 restaurants have made accessibility changes
Starting from autumn 2020, newly established restaurants (including those that have undergone recent changes in their purpose) have been obligated to meet accessibility standards, such as having ramps, in order to operate. By mid-August, the province reported that they have granted 295 permits to these establishments.
There will be additional changes arriving in a short span of time.
Both an updated edition of the Nova Scotia Building Code and fresh accessibility standards for the constructed surroundings are anticipated to be released in early 2024.
Code changes include more power door openers to washrooms and interior doors. They will apply to all new buildings, those doing major renovations, and outdoor spaces like sidewalks and parks.
The suggested accessibility guidelines comprise of illuminated pathways that guide towards a ramp, increased availability of accessible spaces in campgrounds, and more stringent regulations for temporary walkways.
Once the building code is put into action, the province intends to grant a two-year period for implementing the accessibility standards, which will be enforced from 2026 onwards.