How municipalities set up and work with Municipal Heritage Committees

The best possible way for municipal councils to begin the establishment of a heritage conservation program in their community is to establish a Municipal Heritage Committee.

The role of municipalities

Under the Ontario Heritage Act, a municipality is "a city, town, village, township or improvement district and includes a band under the Indian Act (Canada) that is permitted to control, manage and expend its revenue moneys under section 68 of that Act."

It is the inherent responsibility of municipalities to formulate heritage policies and principles, and, whenever possible, to initiate a heritage conservation program. The Act says that municipal councils have the power to:

  • Establish a municipal heritage committee (s. 28)
  • Designate individual property (Part IV of the Act) and designate districts or areas (Part V of the Act, s.29, s.41)
  • Issue or refuse permits to alter or demolish a designated property (Parts IV and V, s.33, 34, s.42, 43, 44)
  • Repeal designation by-laws (s. 31, 32)
  • Purchase or lease individually designated property (s.36(1))
  • Expropriate designated property (s.36(2))
  • Provide grants and loans to designated property owners (s. 39)
  • Enter into easements and covenants with property owners (s.37(1))

As a result, a municipal council is responsible for:

  • Setting the municipal budget to be used for heritage conservation
  • Carrying out heritage conservation policies in its Official Plan and the Official Plan amendments
  • Receiving recommendations and consulting with the municipal heritage committee if there is one, and having due regard for the committee's advice on designation, alterations to designated property, demolition, repeal of designation by-laws, and other matters relating to heritage conservation in the municipality.

The Ontario Heritage Act provides that the council of a municipality that forms part of a county, a metropolitan, regional, or district municipality may delegate its power to establish a municipal heritage committee to the council of such county, metropolitan, regional, or district municipality of which it forms a part (s. 36(3)). This means that a lower-tier municipal council can choose to delegate its authority to establish a heritage committee to an upper-tier municipality of which it is a part.

Terms of reference and other procedures

Most municipalities establish a municipal heritage committee through a municipal procedural by-law. Once council passes a by-law that establishes a municipal heritage committee, it would typically assign responsibilities that meet the requirements of the Act. Municipal heritage committees can and should get a copy of the by-law that created them from the clerk.

The by-law establishing the municipal heritage committee should set out specific terms of reference that set out clear roles and relationships between the municipal heritage committee and the municipality. Clear, well-defined terms of reference will go a long way toward maintaining a harmonious and productive relationship.

This chart shows the main components of clear, well-defined terms of reference.

What's in a
"Terms of reference"

Purpose or need


Time frame

Resources required



Potential membership

Communications process

Evaluation format


Avoid duplication by other committees

Set out goals

Set out when the committee will start, how long it will exist, how frequently it will meet, how much time committee work will take

Set out staff, expenses, equipment

Set out authority and limitations

Set out reporting lines: to whom and in what form (eg. reports, studies, minutes)

Set out who selects members and selection criteria

Set out who should hear about the committee and how information should be communicated, take into consideration sensitivity and confidentiality

Measure achievement of goals

In addition to terms of reference, many municipalities have policies and by-laws for their standing committees that govern appointments to the committee, procedures, rules, codes of conduct , duties and other responsibilities.

Who serves on a municipal heritage committee?

Each municipal council must determine the qualifications and the number of members for its municipal heritage committee. Council will consider factors such as the size of the municipality, its organizational structure and the extent of its heritage program. Although the Ontario Heritage Act requires a minimum of five members, most communities find that seven to 11 members better represent their communities.

Ideally, a heritage committee should include people representative of the community that represent a balanced cross-section of local interests and perspectives. Its members' diverse skills and disciplines could include architectural conservation techniques, management, historical research, and knowledge of the community's heritage. Strong advocacy, communications, and organizational skills are also essential. Their background should give them the technical and professional expertise to make decisions and policies informed by their understanding of complex heritage conservation issues, reliable technical and professional advice, and knowledge of their local community.

If a broad-based membership that combines the prerequisite skills is not possible, sharing human resources with a neighbouring municipality can be an effective, mutually beneficial compromise. Another option is for municipalities to provide ongoing training and educational programs that encourage local citizens to acquire new skills and increase community participation in the conservation of local heritage resources.

How councils choose committee members

Council appoints municipal heritage committee members. It will often advertise for members or recruit them in other ways. Some municipalities organize orientation sessions for people interested in serving on various committees prior to accepting applications, so that the volunteers will know exactly what will be expected of them if they are selected to serve. In other cases, a heritage homeowner, a community group or organization can approach council to start the process of setting up a municipal heritage committee.

The municipal by-law set up by council to establish the committee should comply with the municipal policy governing conflict of interest (council can get this information from the municipal clerk) and state membership criteria, including:

  • How long a person serves on the committee (a fixed term is recommended). While appointments to the committee generally range from one-to four-year terms, or concurrent to the term of council, terms of service for committee members can vary.
  • For how many terms members can be reappointed. A regular infusion of keen, new, active members — some experienced, some inexperienced — will constantly renew every committee. And committees can set up a category of non-voting associate member who would be consulted on issues or who undertake special projects, in order not to lose the experience and expertise of former committee members once their term is up.
  • The clerk, municipal solicitor, building inspector, or planner (by virtue of their positions) could be named non-voting members of the committee or resource staff.

The committee should look at the pattern of terms of appointment in its municipality to determine what is appropriate for it.

The role of municipal staff

Staff roles often depend on municipal resources. Their involvement with a heritage advisory committee varies from municipality to municipality.

Ideally, one staff person should be identified as the contact between the public, City Hall and the municipal heritage committee. This individual could answer routine inquiries, forward literature on behalf of the committee, and help out on administrative work, such as procedural duties specified by the Act, including service and publication of notices and registration of documents.
Municipal heritage committees interact or relate to a number of different municipal departments or staff, including the clerk's office, planning, building, legal, recreation and parks, by-law enforcement, property standards, etc.

In larger municipalities, the municipal heritage committee may be assigned to a particular department such as planning or the clerk's office. This department should specify which of its resources the committee should reasonably expect. These resources could include a staff liaison, photocopying, a meeting space, coffee, letterhead, filing space, typing, etc.

How committees and councils can work together

Volunteers who serve on a heritage committee are directly involved in making decisions that affect their community. Committees are not, however, autonomous. They are established by a municipal by-law and can only exercise the authority granted to them by council. All final decisions rest with council.

Municipal councillors and municipal staff can provide the liaison and support to enable a municipal heritage committee effectively implement a successful heritage conservation program in a community. This is why the municipal heritage committee's reporting relationship to council is so important.

Committees should keep council informed, at all times, of their operations and recommendations — through minutes, reports to council, annual reports, and updates on activities. Some committees report through planning advisory or community development committees or other standing committees, or even through the municipal chief administrative officer. The more direct the access or reporting relationship, the better.

Appointing one or two municipal council members to a heritage committee can keep lines of communication open and maintain working relationships with each municipal department. A council member can, for instance, bring the committee's work to the attention of the council, introduce by-laws at the appropriate time, and inform the committee of the council's expectations and requirements.

Funding of a municipal heritage committee

The municipal council provides its municipal heritage committee with a budget. Budgets vary across the province. They reflect the availability of municipal resources and are a good indicator of the extent of heritage conservation programs undertaken by the municipality.

The heritage committee should submit an operating budget once a year to the finance committee or directly to municipal council. The budget process itself is a strategic planning exercise that helps the committee set its program objectives and goals for the year. It should outline the committee's activities, expenses, and revenues, if any.

While council should provide the resources required for the effective functioning of the committee, most local municipal guidelines allow municipal heritage committees to seek support from the private or service sectors in their community for special projects. This support could include donations of services, supplies, funding, etc. Committees should follow local municipal guidelines when seeking financial or service support from the community.

For more information

Please consult the Ontario Heritage Tool Kit - A Guide to Establishing and Sustaining an Effective Municipal Heritage Committee or contact the Libraries, Arts and Heritage Services Unit at 416-314-7620 or