Suite rules hurting homeowners: resident

Rena Van Steele has concerns about the consistency and fairness of North Cowichan’s municipal zoning bylaw enforcement.

Rena Van Steele has concerns about the consistency and fairness of North Cowichan’s municipal zoning bylaw enforcement.

The Chemainus homeowner recently lost the renter who had been living in a non-bylaw compliant building on her property following a chain of tit-for-tat events that Van Steele says plunged the neighbourhood into a tense standoff atmosphere over frustrations arising from the municipality’s complaint-based enforcement process.

“It’s a tattletale system that pits neighbour against neighbour,” Van Steele said, adding that although “many, many people are renting illegally in the area,” only those who are complained about get punished.

North Cowichan Manager of Building and Compliance Michael Mark noted that he cannot comment on any specific case.

He did state generally that the majority of complaints come in from residents, but went on to note that there have been “a number” of complaints lodged by the municipality as well. The municipality’s zoning bylaw enforcement abilities were strengthened in October of last year.

North Cowichan encompasses an area of 20,433 hectares with a population of 28,807 as of the 2011 census.

Rachel Hastings currently serves as the municipality’s sole bylaw compliance officer, which Mark said is a “good balance” between enforcement needs and municipality finances.

Mark acknowledged there are a “large number of complaints” and that enforcement deals with “a lot of illegal suites and a lot of illegal second buildings on properties.”

He estimated these constitute around half of the infractions enforcement deals with overall when compared with its numerous other bylaws.

Coun. Al Siebring believes there is still much to be improved regarding consistency and workability of zoning bylaw enforcement.

“I can point you to all kinds of properties in North Cowichan that are obviously a problem, and yet, unless somebody complains, we don’t enforce,” Siebring said. “Even then, you can’t enforce every situation. It becomes somewhat subjective and that’s really a problem and I don’t know how to fix that.”

Van Steele said her once-idyllic neighbourhood is now a crisis zone after she says she complained about non-bylaw-compliant activities by her neighbour and he responded by complaining about her.

“It’s destroyed our neighbourhood,” she said, noting she is in a difficult financial situation especially with the rental income no longer coming in. “The complaint system is ludicrous. It’s totally unfair.”

Siebring acknowledged the system does give residents the possibility of “using municipal bylaws to try and club each other over the head.”

Van Steele believes that lack of local economic opportunity and a strong demand for housing in the area drives many to illegally rent out units in their home or on their property. She also claims that the municipality is focused on going after non-compliant homeowners because there is a lack of local construction and development.

Mark said that while they “always want to encourage more development in the municipality,” construction levels have been “fairly consistent in the last three years.”

Van Steele says the municipality has also placed a notice of bylaw contravention on her property that will only be lifted if she rips out the interior of the unit for full inspection which wasn’t done during renovations, a demolition that Van Steele said would lose her $40,000.

Siebring noted North Cowichan staff is doing an ongoing examination about how to improve zoning bylaws. Recommendations are expected to be brought before council by this summer, Siebring said, adding that improvements relate not only to resolving tensions but also to adequate provision of affordable housing.

“The whole question of suites fits into the affordable housing piece. I’ve been pushing for it since the middle of last term, and we’re in the middle of a zoning bylaw rewrite right now,” Siebring said. “We need to find ways to accommodate what are now illegal suites. We need to find a way as well to try to regularize the suites that are already there.”

Mark noted there will also be a chance for public input when the recommendations are released.

“There’s always going to be neighbours that don’t like each other,” Mark said, adding that if bylaws are no longer wanted by the community or causing problems the municipality “should be obligated to listen to the community to make changes.”

Although safety and being up to code are vital requirements, Siebring said the larger issue relates to allowing land use in ways that increase affordable housing and are a win-win for residents, renters and the municipality.

“If you have a suite in your basement there better be some kind of a fireguard, etcetera. So those building code issues can be addressed, but some of it is land use,” he said. “If we’re serious about promoting more affordable housing we better find a way.”