Seventy ‘monster homes’ built on the sly

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Monster homes that violate bylaws leave many people calling for change

Kent Spencer

Grant Rice stands in front of a mega-home that he says has stop-work orders for breaching zoning and advertises eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms. Photograph by: Les Bazso, The Province

Surrey has turned a blind eye to 70 illegal monster homes in the city — all of them unauthorized, uninspected and unsafe, says Surrey’s unionized workforce.

The illegal additions, many measuring an extra 1,000 square feet, were built on the sly, they say.

Second-storey sundecks with patios underneath were sometimes boxed in on weekends following official inspections, despite rules that require building permits for such enclosures.

One North Surrey home was advertised as a full “eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms” and has had a stop-work order posted for years.

Robin MacNair, spokesperson for the city’s local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says Mayor Dianne Watts knows about the unsafe conditions but has not taken action.

“All of the additions were built without permits and without inspections. The majority were not up to the building code. The work included plumbing and electrical installations,” MacNair said.

Surrey was ready to take more than 70 cases to court in the fall of 2008, with charges of building without permits and building against stop-work orders.

But council voted to hold all impending cases “in abeyance” on Sept. 29, 2008, several weeks before the municipal election. Altogether, the city has 278 stop-work orders for unauthorized construction which are being held in abeyance.

The city council decision came after lobbying by the Surrey Ratepayers Association, which presented a 4,239-name petition requesting stop-worker orders be “held in abeyance” while house sizes were reviewed.

MacNair said the union asked “several times” for meetings with the city about safety concerns, but it took Watts six months to respond.

Watts, whose Surrey First political party holds the majority on council, eventually met with the union last May.

“We told the mayor that staff was [making] efforts to enforce bylaws and being left in limbo. Employees were demoralized,” said MacNair.

Watts told The Province she “absolutely saw their point.”

“The bylaws need to be adhered to,” she said. But Watts also said she told city manager Murray Dinwoodie that “anything that was clearly a safety issue could not be held in abeyance.”

Dinwoodie admitted that there were “potential” safety issues in the 70 cases because the homes hadn’t been inspected.

But he said the city cracked down on “imminent hazards” that it knew about through exterior visual sightings and complaints.

He said the impending court cases were put aside because the city was studying the mega-house issue in the meantime.

“We didn’t want to take action on things that might be rectifiable in a different form, if a new bylaw came forward,” he said.

Surrey Civic Coalition Coun. Bob Bose said the city has left itself liable if anything goes wrong, because it knows about the illegal additions and has done nothing.

“The city has exposed itself to liability. If structures are built unsafely and we have failed to enforce bylaws, we are culpable,” he said.

He accused Surrey First of trying to gain favor with the ratepayer group shortly before last November’s civic election, which Surrey First won in a landslide.

“The Sept. 29 vote was directly related to the election. Surrey First did not want to suffer the wrath of a large part of the community,” Bose argued.

Prior to the election, the ratepayer group lobbied Surrey First and the Civic Coalition.

Watts insisted that putting stop-work cases on hold was not about trying to attract votes.

“I had heated arguments with individuals [from the Ratepayers Association],” she said.

Ratepayers vice-president Kalvinder Bassi said no one in either party “was in a position” to offer promises before the election.

“We got the message that there would be due public process,” he said. “Some people will always abuse the bylaw with multi-family developments. The houses should be taken down and the owners heavily fined.

“This is a pain for everyone. Neighbours are against neighbours,” Bassi said.

Grant Rice, a North Surrey resident who has fought monster homes for five years, said one illegal house in the 12700-block 103 Avenue was advertised as having “eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms.”

“It has had a stop-work order for years, which has been unresolved,” said Rice, a Civic Coalition candidate for council last year.

“It really bothers me that some developers have taken out building permits and played by the book. Others ask to be forgiven for past transgressions,” he said. “Why is there no enforcement?”

Council is currently reconsidering the issue of house sizes across the city. Staff have recommended a 25-per-cent increase in allowable square footage, with a maximum allowable of 4,550 square feet.

Staff say the increase is needed to bring Surrey’s rules closer to other municipalities — although Surrey does not count basements in the total, which Richmond, Delta and Coquitlam do.

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