Standing inside the West Vancouver home of Amber and David Trent, the view out their family room picture window is one of utter desolation. A mere six metres from their house is a residential construction site, but one that resembles a recently bombed war zone.
The Trents’ situation has been gathering a fair amount of media attention in the last couple of weeks. Most Lower Mainland residents are unfazed by demolitions and new builds, particularly anyone living in prime neighbourhoods such as Point Grey, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy and West Vancouver. However, the case is so extreme that it’s sparked an uproar between homeowners, builders, real estate agents, developers and anybody else with a vested interest in West Vancouver real estate.
One side is pressuring the District of West Vancouver to introduce bylaw changes that would protect the trees and character of old West Vancouver, which was founded as cottage country back in 1912. The other side wants to protect the interests of residents who may want to cash out, new homeowners who want bigger houses, and the development community.
“It’s the poster child for why we have to act,” says Mary-Ann Booth, a West Vancouver councilor and lawyer by profession. “This family’s lives have been immeasurably altered, and that’s just not good enough… We can’t let that sort of thing happen again.
“That’s not to say that every example in West Vancouver is that extreme, but it’s caught council’s attention and it’s also caught the building community’s attention and the attention of residents.”
Judging from previous online comments, the Trents won’t get much sympathy from people who view West Vancouver residents as privileged people who whine when someone tries to chop down a tree. However, the Trents live in a 2,400 sq. ft. size house on a narrow lot, David is an information technology executive, and Amber is a stay-at-home mom. They have two boys, ages one and three. They bought the house, their first, in 2009, when the market was still recovering from the downturn.
“Our concern has been the safety of the kids, and because it’s such a large project, it’s been frustrating,” says Amber. “Everybody in the neighbourhood is devastated because this could happen. Hopefully it brings things to the forefront.
“Construction is going to happen. I get that. It’s just really sad that you can clear cut an acre lot.”
They purchased the house largely because of the mature garden of trees that gave them total privacy. However, when they went away to Costa Rica in mid August, they returned to find that the neighbouring lot had cut down between 20 and 50 trees on their acre-sized lot and begun blasting the huge rock on which the property sits. Another round of blasting begins next week. In September, a mesh fence was put up in an effort to contain any excavation debris that might fall into their yard or hit their house.
Their neighbours, who didn’t respond to an email request for an interview, are scraping the land to build a 16,000 sq. ft. house. The Trents have been told the project will take at least two years to complete.
“The issue is our lot is very narrow, their lot is a steep hill with loose rock up there, and we have very young children who need to play outside,” says David, who says he’s filed a nuisance claim for noise and safety issues, and basically not being able to enjoy their property.
Ms. Booth says that when she saw the proposed size of the house — originally 17,500 sq. ft. — she had thought it was a typo.
“Our priority is around this issue of ‘housing bulk’ as we call it. But it’s not just about the size of the house. It’s about privacy and views. There’s a race to the sky in West Van right now. Everybody wants to get their house up as high as they can.”
Last week, council moved to draft a bylaw that would address the character and size of homes, following consultation with the community. They plan to revisit the issue in 2015. People who’d never attended a council meeting before packed the room to voice their concerns for and against proposed changes.
Sander Heynemans, who lives kitty corner to the Trents, was one of those who spoke at the meeting. In a letter to the city, the retired teacher and administrator suggested solutions such as compensating residents with decreased property taxes during the construction phase of major, ongoing projects.
“All we get when we complain about a development is, ‘they are in compliance with district bylaws,’ end of story,” Mr. Heynemans said in a phone interview. “That’s what we want to change.”
Change has been swift in West Vancouver. There are something like 10,000 single-family detached houses in the area and in the last three years, 2,500 houses have been sold, according to Ms. Booth.
“Of those, I do know there’s been a significant number that have been torn down,” she says.
Unlike Vancouver and North Vancouver, the district doesn’t have a bylaw to protect trees, so clear-cutting of an entire lot is allowed. Ms. Booth says there have been instances where even trees on city property have been cut down to improve views. West Van has long been a sleepy community known for its lush gardens, an isolated enclave of windy roads, oceanfront and hillside homes, and breathtaking vistas. Many of the homes are on large lots. It’s also got an important stock of mid-century modern homes, some of them architecturally important, which are under threat. As well, several of the big new houses are empty, which doesn’t make for a great community. Long-time residents fear everything that makes West Vancouver desirable will be lost.
“My residents are very concerned about vacant homes and properties that aren’t maintained, and about new really large homes that don’t respect privacy, views, established green and vegetation that gives character to the neighbourhood,” she says.
Real estate agent Marc Burrows takes an opposing stance, and says he welcomes change. He spoke at the meeting against any restrictions to the building bylaw. He says he sympathizes with the Trents, but he doesn’t believe changing the bylaw will solve their problems. Instead, he says new regulations on building size will devalue homes and adversely affect the real estate market and construction industry.
“If it was me [in their situation], would I be thrilled? Of course not,” he says. “But people have to realize that when you put policy in place that’s going to compromise the value of these properties, there are a lot of people who will be very unhappy, because if they have children, the value of these homes and the massive sales figures they can get can mean huge things for their family in terms of security for years to come. We are talking massive, massive money.
“There was an older gentleman who had been in his house for 35 years, and he paid less than $100,000 for his house. We knocked on his door and gave him an offer. He wasn’t even listed, and we offered just over $2.1 million.
Mr. Heynemans gets rankled at that sort of talk. Before he lived in West Vancouver, he and his wife, a nurse, had lived in East Vancouver. They bought their 2,000 sq. ft. house in 1977 for $85,000.
“When you listen to these realtors, they want you dead and they want to sell your house and build the biggest house possible because they make the most money from that.”
On the bright side, Ms. Booth says that the district is working with builders and developers to find solutions that could make all sides happy — or at least, happier.
“They are willing to work with us. I think they’ve seen that the status quo is not working.”