“There was no consideration by planning to ensure that residences comply with the character of the community and have any sensitivity to the quality of the community. My rights have been violated because of bylaws that clearly don’t exist to protect me or others. Rather, it allows architects or new owners to get away with whatever they can.”
It was supposed to be a discussion about a wall in a new home, but it quickly devolved into a he-said, she-said scenario as councillors blamed each other for why there was little they could do about homes that don’t seem to fit with the neighbourhood in West Vancouver.
What kick started the discussion this January in the council chambers is a Lawson Avenue home with a huge wall, built with seemingly little regard for the neighbourhood’s character. Upset with this unneighbourly act, the residents wrote to the council urging action.
Colleen Sonderman was one among the neighbours who addressed the council and expressed her disappointment at what she called a flawed planning process.
“There was no consideration by planning to ensure that residences comply with the character of the community and have any sensitivity to the quality of the community. My rights have been violated because of bylaws that clearly don’t exist to protect me or others. Rather, it allows architects or new owners to get away with whatever they can,” she said.
The staff told the council there was nothing they could have done as the home’s architecture complied with the district bylaws. Planning staff are only required to check the plan for compliance with bylaws. There is no mechanism for them to restrict development based on mere style and architecture.
Frits de Vries, the architect of the Lawson Avenue home, said it had been designed to meet the client’s requirement, as regulated by the bylaws.
“The design provides views from the east neighbour over our client’s front yard, and provides privacy to the neighbour. The design of this house may be not be appreciated by some, and may be liked by others. West Vancouver would need to review and revise its zoning schedules if the bylaws do not reflect what the community and council wants,” Vries said.
Vries said the City of Vancouver has its own charter expanding their authority to impose design guidelines, but many owners don’t like that as it means a house designed by planning department and the neighbourhood. West Vancouver’s British Properties, however, controls form and character of home design as their Design Guidelines are attached to the title of each lot as a condition of sale.
Councillor Christine Cassidy won’t buy it. “If I had a look at those plans and that home and those streets and most of the other things being built in West Vancouver, I would have a good solid word with that architect, saying ‘this ain’t happening’. That wall is absolutely unbelievable to comprehend that that anyone with any semblance or good taste and common sense and courtesy towards neighbours would have built such monstrosity. It’s terrible,” she said.
When Mayor Smith asked her to be careful with her words, she said she stood by them. “I’m welcome to my opinion and I stand by it.”
Mayor Michael Smith said if this was a commercial building, the developer would have to follow design guidelines but there is no local government regulation that could dictate design for single-family homes.
Councillor Nora Gambioli reminded the council of a lost opportunity to do just that. She said a few years ago, staff had in fact brought forward a proposal that would give the planning some say to regulating the neighbourhood form and character.
“I and councillor Cassidy were the ones who voted to change those bylaws. I was booed by the audience…developers, realtors and builders who were out of the way in the foyers. The problems was that average citizens were not there that day and there was not enough support in the council to say we need to change the bylaws,” she said.
Councillor Cassidy, too, said district officials had brought forward changes to the bylaw that addressed form and neighbourhood character a few years ago, and the council wouldn’t be discussing the wall had they supported the changes.
Councillor Craig Cameron said there is a need to look forward rather than casting aspersions on each other. “It’s very easy to make grandiose political statements about this house but reality is it complies with our laws and council and staff can’t act against our own bylaws. The reality is 2.5 years ago staff brought proposals on limiting house size and what can be built and there was a great hue and cry and we voted against stricter laws against. I didn’t support it because I thought it would be some unintended consequences, but make no mistake. For every person in this community that thinks laws should be restrictive, you can find others who think they can build what they want,” he said.
Councillor Bill Soprovich called the bylaw brought by the staff a few years ago a double-edged sword. “On one side we had residents saying keep out of my property and don’t tell me what to do, and on the other side was the monster home situation and people wanting us to do something about it,” he said.
This week, the council has struck a working group that will brainstorm ideas on the form and character of homes in West Vancouver and bring back recommendations on how to best deal with the issue that seems to pit neighbour against neighbour.
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