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Marathon mega home hearing offers mixed results

Carol Day  -  Sep 10, 2015  -  No Comments

Emotional meeting results in lower home heights while grand single-storey ceilings are maintained

SEPTEMBER 10, 2015 05:40 PM

A packed public hearing goes into the wee hours as residents, builders and politicians address the mega home issue. Photo by Graeme Wood/Richmond News

A packed public hearing goes into the wee hours as residents, builders and politicians address the mega home issue. Photo by Graeme Wood/Richmond News

A marathon, six-hour public hearing on residential bylaw amendments to address the size of new homes resulted in a new, nine-metre height limit for all homes. But critics charge the most important aspects that have led to a new wave of bigger, bulkier mega homes have been left untouched. 

The hearing, attended by about 200 people, ran from 7 p.m. Tuesday to close to 1 a.m. Wednesday. Residents spoke not just to the technical issues, but also to social concerns related to housing. Meanwhile, professional builders expressed concerns over the marketability of homes and profit margins.

Realtor Lyn Terborg, who helped galvanize a group of Westwind neighbourhood residents to ask the city to revise its residential bylaws, said she was pleased Richmond city council decided to unanimously agree to Coun. Chak Au’s proposal to reduce three-storey homes to nine metres to the peak of the roof, resulting in a uniform height for all homes in Richmond.

But Terborg and her son, John Terborg, who has made several presentations to councillors this year on the issue, both believe excessive home massing (volume) will continue.

“There was not a significant change to massing in this bylaw,” said John Terborg, who is still asking the city to rein in setbacks, so homes are not built so close to their property lines.

“Problems with preserving backyard spaces, privacy, and sunshine will continue. …The homes are still going to be as far back into the neighbours as they used to be,” he concluded.

Notably, city staff have stated in a memo to council that rear yard setbacks and maximum depth of a house “might warrant additional analysis.”

The new bylaws, if approved by a majority on council, could be finalized at Monday’s council meeting. 

They will usher in tighter building envelopes (how much a home can project outward) and a one-metre reduction in the height of garages and accessory buildings.

Furthermore, the bylaws introduce a more thorough field inspection process by the city and a checklist for builders. 

The bylaws maintain rooms with five-metre ceilings that are not counted as double the floor area. They also don’t affect the ratio of livable floor area to the property.

When passed, they will act as the new framework for the roughly 4,000 residential properties dictated by soon-to-be-terminated provincial land-use contracts.

Councillors Derek Dang and Bill McNulty noted those properties are the biggest problems because the contracts supersede city bylaws and they contain fewer massing restrictions.

McNulty said the new bylaws were a “compromise” between the builders and the community.

“We have to look at our urban design guidelines,” he added.

Coun. Harold Steves wanted to change the bylaw to alter single-storey ceiling heights to 3.7 metres; Mayor Malcolm Brodie told Steves that it would require another public hearing; Steves then challenged the chair (Brodie) but the city clerk concurred.

City planners noted roughly 10 per cent of all new homes built in recent years have been 10.5 metre, two-and-a-half-storey homes (technically three storeys).

Au said he feared without capping the height, such homes would proliferate.

The change means any new three-storey home will need to have eight-foot ceilings. 

Realtor Khalid Hasan said the new bylaws will work to reduce massing and added that eight-foot ceilings are not “practical.”

Coun. Carol Day disagreed and said builders need to work with the city to build alternative forms of housing within neighbourhoods, other than luxury homes.

Brodie warned the outspoken Day of her conduct at one point, accusing her of “encouraging criticism” against the city.

Residents who spoke were nearly unanimous in their desire to reduce the size of homes. The comments often led to criticisms of the city’s handling of housing affairs. Council’s vision and leadership when it comes to housing was also questioned numerous times.

Resident Jason Ma challenged the assumptions made by the city, as well as most on council that builders deserved to be heard equally as much as residents.

“Your democratic duty is to advocate for the interests of the majority of people,” said Ma.

Two past council candidates, Sal Bhullar and Dan Baxter, expressed the opinion that denser forms of housing (duplexes to quadplexes and secondary suites) must occur in neighbourhoods.

Bhullar said she doesn’t want her family living in “safety deposit boxes in the sky (condos)” and Baxter said “addressing massing does not address the issue of affordability,” granted he perceives many homes are being used first and foremost as investments rather than places to live.

But builder and resident Sam Sandhu said he was “sick and tired of people talking about affordability” when residents are benefitting from rising home values.

Builder Raman Kooner asked: “What is affordable?”

Others posed philosophical questions, as well. 

“What constitutes a neighbourhood?” said resident Rosa Steinberg.

“What is your vision of Richmond? Whom are you serving?” she asked council.

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