Dealing with the City of Vancouver is an emotional roller coaster. I have felt the following emotions in different degrees, sometimes at the same time and sometimes within seconds of each other:
But mostly just CONFUSION.
How is it that a relatively smart individual with a desire to build a simple home in one of the most picturesque and expensive cities in the world can’t figure out how to get a permit from a well funded, historically established, recently re-elected municipal government?
Seriously? It boggles my mind.
I want to share my experiences thus far with the City of Vancouver. If you’ve read my earlier blog post about the paperwork I have had to produce just to remove a dead tree and a stump, you’ll know I am not thrilled with the City of Vancouver permitting process.
But my faith in the City Government was largely restored when I was taken under the wing of Patrick in the planning department who was kind enough to help me get my laneway house allowed, despite the width of my lot being a few inches short.
CITY OF VANCOUVER NEW BUILDING CODE
When I inquired with Patrick about the new City of Vancouver building code to find out if I really had to put a shower in the washroom on the main floor of my house after code guy, counter and 3rd guy, couldn’t help me, he too was confused. The difference here was that Patrick took it upon himself to help me find out the answer. A few days after meeting with Patrick he organized another meeting with Boris from the code department, who generously met with my designer, my contractor and myself to review our plans.
During the meeting, both Patrick and Boris were very helpful in answering our questions and interpreting the code. There were, of course, numerous times during the meeting where they both said, “that’s not our department, I can’t comment” – which seems to be basic training at 12th and Cambie. But, on the whole, the meeting was a success and Boris was able to confirm for us that we are not required to install a shower on the main floor of the home.
Instead he informed us that the purpose of the new City of Vancouver building by-law is for the home to be ‘adaptable’ for later use. Adaptable should not be confused with accessible – which is a term with actual architectural consequences. Basically, the new code requires that we build a washroom on the main floor of a home with clear floor space of 720mm x 1200mm and we install plumbing and a drain. The plumbing can be hidden in a wall and the drain can be capped. According to Boris, the idea is that in the future the bathroom can be converted into Japanese or yacht style shower in the future where everything is in one room.
Now, I’ve never been to Japan, but I have spent a lot of time a sail boat, so I understand what he means Basically, the whole room becomes one big shower. OK – That’s no big deal, I can comply with that.
But wait….What about drainage sloping? My contractor immediately asked if the bathroom drain had to be sloped so water won’t pour out of the room? Nope. Not required.
But if the drain isn’t sloped and I have to install a shower in 50 years, I’ll either have to raise floor or install a curb to keep the water from running into the hallway!
The by-law is not concerned with that, came the answer. The bylaw only requires the plumbing fixtures and drainage. Another well thought out plan!
It was also revealed to us that we needed to have one accessible shower in the home with a clear space in front of it – which conveniently my designer put on the top floor next to the bedrooms, where a shower will ACTUALLY BE USED, rather than in a powder on the main floor.
Looking for logic (which is always a dangerous task at the City of Vancouver) I asked, “Since the upstairs washroom HAS to be accessible, how do I get people upstairs?”
Answer: “You can convert the stairs to an elevator in the future.”
Seeing dollar signs, I continued, “Does that mean I have to build the exterior structure of my home in a way that it can hold an elevator in the future?”
Answer: “No, the code is only concerned with the washroom layout upstairs.”
2 new building policies (accessibility upstairs and main floor showers) both 50% thought out. Ugh.
I left the meeting both confused and grateful. How is it that so much time could be spent designing, implementing and promoting a new building code and yet the answers were so elusive. Regardless, I was extremely grateful to Boris and Patrick for their time. It allowed Antonio (my designer) and I to finish our building plans so could submit our permit application.
CITY OF VANCOUVER TREE REMOVAL BY-LAW
Next, I decided to tackle my “trees”. I put the word “trees” in quotes because if you recall, one is a stump and the other is a horribly diseased tree.
After collecting my arborist report, taking pictures of the site, filling out the 2 page tree removal permit and drawing a site plan showing where the proposed trees for removal and the replacement trees would be – being sure to include their full botanical names – I went to City Hall, took a number and waited for an opportunity to meet with someone from the landscaping department. About 20 minutes later my number was called.
Emotion = JOY!
When I told they staff member I was there to apply for the removal of 2 trees, she was seemingly upset. “You know you’ll need an arbourist report”, she said “Yes”, I replied as I produced it. I am seriously under the impression this staff member was looking for any reason to not allow me to take some trees down.
I should note that at this point in the process I had not completed on the land, so I was not yet the legal owner.
Not wanting to lie, I had filled out the tree permit and put down the seller’s name, with me as the applicant. There is a spot on the form for this. Also, there is a clause in the contract of purchase and sale between myself and seller allowing me to make applications or inquiries to the City of Vancouver with respect to the property.
So, when the staffer pointed to the owners signature line and said it wasn’t filled out and she wouldn’t be able to help me, I produced a copy of the contract of purchase and sale showing that I had the authority to conduct this business.
“I’m sorry, we won’t be able to use that, its not the original signature,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” I replied
STAFFER: “No, its a copy.”
ME: “Well sure, but I can assure you it is legal. This is the same contract that will be used to complete the transaction at the land titles office. It doesn’t have to be a wet signature to be legal.”
STAFFER: “It does for the City. Can you get us the original?”
ME: “Sure, it was signed on my iPad. How much are you going to give me to hold only my iPad while you are going through the process of letting me remove a stump from my back yard?”
STAFFER: “Can you just have the owner sign this?”
ME: “No. She’s already signed this OTHER perfectly good legal document giving me authority to make this application.”
STAFFER: “If she could just sign it, we can look at the application.”
ME: “She had a stroke and can’t sign her name.”
STAFFER: “Then we have to wait until you own the land, which isn’t really that long away.”
ME: “But I want to do this now.”
STAFFER: “I’ll have to check with our legal department”
ME: “I’ll wait here”
And…..off the staff went. 13 minutes later she came back with good news and bad news. The City would allow me to make the submission without the owners signature on the removal application but I would need the owner to sign a separate letter giving me authorization to make the application.
Oh come on!
I gave up and decided I would do the tree application at the same time as the building application. My love of nature also died a little that day. I am worried that when I do actually cut down the trees, the City of Vancouver will require me to have a tree funeral.
In this meeting I was also told that I am REQUIRED to hire a landscape architect or landscape designer to do the landscape plan for the laneway house. The staffer gave me a list of landscape designers and architects – none of whom knew anything about City of Vancouver requirements for laneway houses and all of whom were more than prepared to take my money and learn the process while I paid them. Totally bunk.
This meeting took about 1.5 hours of my time and over 30 minutes of the staff member’s time, plus the fact that she was consulting with the legal department for 15 minutes of time. So, a total of 45 minutes of City staff time. The average hourly wage of a landscape staffer and a lawyer is likely around $50. Which works out to about $37.50 in labour costs for the City of Vancouver to save the stump in my back yard.
Emotion = RAGE! (Those are my tax dollars!)
ENGINEERING PRE-PERMIT APPLICATION
The next part of the application process is getting the permit together. But before you can apply for a permit you have to a pre-permit engineering application. That’s right. You have to get a permit to get a permit.
Basically, this step is when the City Engineering department goes out to the property to mark out where the sewer and water lines are. Unfortunately, the development approval people don’t talk to the engineering department so these processes can not be done concurrently, they need to be done consecutively. More time. More money.
In order to apply for this permit, you will need to provide legal 3 copies of the property survey and the application form. 15 business days later, they email the documents, which you need to include in your application package and building design.
Even though your actual permit won’t be reviewed for months (more on this later), you still need to wait for these documents to arrive. Also, they won’t share your survey with the development people, so you need even more copies of the expensive to print surveys.
Emotion = PAIN!
In my next post about the city I will share with you the process of pre-plan checking, permit application (for which I was rejected) and permit approval.