Detailed plan for restoring Fairbank House coming; no cost given

The brochure from the sale of Fairbank House Courtesy Petrolia Heritage


The engineer for David Burnie says there will be a complete plan presented to Petrolia Council for the historic Sunnyside mansion.

But Geoff Dale isn’t sure how much the work is going to cost.

Dale and Burnie, whose family owns the home built by one of the leaders in the oil boom, J.H. Fairbank, appeared before Petrolia Council Monday to try to get a sense of what council is expecting of the repairs to the home and the 16-unit apartment building which is in the planning stages.

Burnie’s plan has faced stiff opposition. Historians say building an apartment building on the three and a half acre parcel of land will ruin the character of the grounds and make it difficult to use the home which is seen as an icon of the boom times.

When Burnie first approached the committee of adjustment to get permission to build another structure on the property, he was told they would need some evidence of a plan to restore Fairbank House.

Burnie returned to the committee with a list of items he wished to accomplish over five years. The committee approved the minor variance and soon Petrolia Council will look at the site plan for the apartment.  But the plan to rejuvenate Fairbank House will be key.

Several councillors asked about the plan, including Councillor Joel Field who questioned when council would see it.

“There is a more thorough plan coming,” says Dale. “Until we had this meeting, we hadn’t moved forward. We wanted to find out what your concerns were… and have a path forward.”

Field questioned whether the exterior work to the house could be completed first. Burnie says he is open to “possible adjustments” to the plan but says what he does depends on what materials he can find. “Materials are sometimes hard to come by – I spent three years finding my brick.”

Other Councillors, including Liz Welsh and Ross O’Hara, wanted assurances the mansion repairs wouldn’t fall by the wayside. “How do we have any assurance that plan will actually be carried out after the apartment is sited,” says Welsh. “If the apartment goes up first, what assurances do we have?”

Dale says the plan – which will contain details on what will be fixed, how it will be repaired and the time frame for it – will be part of the site plan agreement, which is a legal document. “Breaking it is equivalent to breaking a contract. Mr. Burnie has a legal obligation once he has signed the site agreement with the town to follow through.”

O’Hara wanted more. “Would you be willing to put up a bond?” he asked adding many construction projects include a cash bond which if the contractor doesn’t complete the work, goes to the owners of the building.

“I personally don’t think it is necessary,” says Burnie. “I believe my word is good.”

Dale agreed saying Burnie has been very open to the town since bring the idea to staff in August. “In September we had a meeting with the town and planners, building engineers; the intent has always been to show a willingness to work with the town,” he says. “Everything you have asked for from a town perspective has been done. That’s a pretty good indication Mr. Burnie is a man of his word.”

Dale added a bond is “not really normal practice” in these circumstances.

O’Hara pressed on. “Five years is a long time and a lot of factors could play into it; financial, health, a lot of factors could play into it.”

Councillor Tim Brown was concerned two major projects, building a 16-unit apartment building and restoring a mansion, would be costly. “What is the feasibility of turning a profit…if you build the apartment that can make a few dollars…but what is the incentive of fixing the house and …what do you think it would cost to fix the existing house?”

Dale says that hasn’t been determined yet. He says a study has determined it can be fixed, but “we have not done accurate budgeting; to do that you would need a whole scope of work done.”

When Brown repeated that there was concern once the apartment was built, Fairbank House might not be completed, Dale said “Before this, there was no desire to fix up the house.”

Burnie added that “one (the apartment or Fairbank House) does not exist very well without the other.”

Councillor Grant Purdy questioned why the owner hasn’t made the building a heritage site. Burnie says he doesn’t want the designation because it would restrict what he could do and increase the cost of restoring the home.

Councillor Mary Pat Gleeson, who thanked Burnie for coming, asked if he had ever thought about selling the mansion. “I think about a lot of things” he said “but I have no answer for you.”

Burnie is expected to bring his detailed plan for the apartment building and the restoration of Fairbank House to council this spring. Dale says Burnie is willing to hold a public meeting to explain the plans since there is so much interest in the project.

There is likely to be some opposition to the plan. Historian Dave Hext presented council with a petition opposing the apartment on the grounds. It was signed by 2,097 people.

Hext was perplexed after the meeting saying he expected the owner to come with a concrete plan to council. “There should have been a plan already in place,” he says. How can he say he will fix it up without a cost estimate. Will it be one million, two million, $10 million. You have to know that before you make the statement you will fix it.”


  1. Burnie should have a contractor put a price on the restoration of the Fairbanks Mansion to present to the council, this will take a long time but he has owned it a very long time in a fragile state, he has been approached to sell it before and it was said he would never sell it, yet it just sat crumbling. He should have a plan and show a signed agreement with a contractor to fix it up prior to being given the go ahead with the apartment building, it might be over a time period but at least it is a firm commitment to fixing the mansion back to its original condition. I do not think the town should accept “his word”, we all mean well including him but he will be focused on what will make him money not what is hindering him. Just my thought…..if I was in his position I would sell it and move on. Could the town start a fund to “buy it back”?

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