When Chris Back asked the City of Richmond nine years ago for permission to extend his backyard onto 10 feet of municipal land, he knew that, one day, they’d want it back.
What he and 32 other residents of Richmond and Broadway streets in Steveston — all of whom are in the same boat as Back — didn’t expect was a 15-foot wide laneway cemented all the way through their yards.
But that’s exactly what’s happening between now and February as the city tends to a broken, municipal sewer system running directly underneath the 16 or so facing backyards between 4th and 6th avenues.
The only “plausible” explanation Back and his neighbours have heard thus far for the laneway being constructed was that it provided better access to the city’s sewer system.
However, in recent conversations with the city’s chief engineer, Back claims he was told the laneway isn’t actually needed, from an engineering perspective.
Back and five neighbours made an in-person plea to city council Monday night, citing concerns over safety, public nuisance and loss of green space.
“I expected more conversation; I asked questions but didn’t get any real answers,” said Back, after the city hall meeting.
“Coun. Carol Day tried unsuccessfully to get a motion on the table for a moratorium on the laneway being built. But she didn’t get anywhere. I kind of feel disrespected by the city; staff keep giving us different answers.
“I’ve been told by city staff there are about 800 other homes in Steveston that could also end up with designated laneways.
“The director of engineering told me we’re just the start of it; as other sewers fail, they’re going to open the laneways across Steveston.”
Back said he knew full well that part of his 30-foot yard was on city land when the house was built almost nine years ago.
“I’m not bothered about losing the space,” he said.
“But when I got permission to extend the yard back in the day, they never said, ‘by the way, we might build a laneway there.’
“What I object to is not being consulted about it or given a good reason for it.
“There were two open houses, but they were not consultation. We were being told about the laneway, they were nothing more than information sessions. There has been zero consultation.”
Ironically, Back’s Richmond Street neighbour, Vito Albanese, used to live a few blocks away in Steveston, but moved two years ago to get away from living with a laneway.
“There was graffiti and our bedroom looked out onto intoxicated people; nothing you’d call the police for, but a nuisance,” he said.
Despite Monday night’s delegation to city council, City of Richmond spokesperson Ted Townsend said the laneway project is “still proceeding and work is already underway.”
However, he said it is the city’s intention to have more discussions with the residents about the design of the laneway and there’s “potential for traffic calming measures.”
Asked why the laneway is being built at all, Townsend said there are lots of different reasons why laneways are constructed in Richmond, noting the city has more than 45 kilometres of “opened and unopened lanes.”
About 85 per cent of the city-owned laneways are opened — as in constructed — while only 40 per cent are open in Steveston.
“Over time, we may open them, but there is no master plan for doing so,” added Townsend.
“If and when things such as sewer systems fail, that’s when we can think about opening them up. But just because a laneway isn’t open, doesn’t mean it won’t be opened in the future.
“If we do have issues with a sewer system, then it could be a laneway that opens up, but there is no grand plan to do this.
“To be clear, though, these areas of land are not easements, they are city land. We have infrastructure underneath it and we have to protect the access to that.
“It is public space, meant for the betterment of the entire community, not exclusively for the residents there.”
Townsend said he couldn’t confirm whether or not the city’s director of engineering had told Back that laneways were not needed for sewer system access.
After getting no joy from city council Monday night, Back said he and his fellow residents weren’t ready to give up.
“(Before Monday’s meeting) I was all about collaborating and discussing it etc.” he said.
“Not now. Now I’m all fired up, as are the residents here.”
The residents have also started up a website NoStevestonLaneways.com.