Tensions palpable at mega home forums

Ambiguous bylaws and poorly detailed permit applications to blame for mega homes, city claims

“What it really looks like is builders want to maximize profits. I don’t see any other reason for what’s going on here …And, I’m wondering what’s going on between the (City of Richmond) and builders out here when letters of instruction to the builders just get sloughed off?” said a long-time Richmond resident whose fury over the changing character of neighbourhoods and the erosion of housing affordability was palpable.

His question was followed by an eruption of cheers at the packed open house for residential zoning regulations on July 8 at Richmond City Hall.

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The man’s question was similar to one posed by real estate agent Lynda Terborg who breached the issue of mega homes at city hall some months ago.

In May Terborg asked city councillors to “rigorously enforce our bylaws and stand behind the plan checkers and inspectors because it is obvious they cannot sustain the pressures being out on them to look the other way.”

When asked by the Richmond News if bylaws are being broken, plan review manager James Cooper stated, “we do not issue permits if they do not meet zoning requirements. Applicants bring plans and we review them against the criteria.”

When asked if the plans (designs) being submitted are matching what is actually being built, Cooper stated, “for the most part they are,” however there is “ambiguity” in the existing bylaw that has led to excessive volume in homes (and thus a lack of green space and large walls blocking out sunshine).

Presently, homes in Richmond that are purchased for one to $1.4 million are being demolished, rebuilt and sold for upwards of $3 million. A typical large custom 4,000 square foot home may cost in the range of $800,000, according to some builders. Should a home be built to be larger than it should be, the windfall on flipping such a home could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cooper’s department is now leading a review of zoning bylaws. Included in the proposed changes is a five-foot reduction in the height of homes, tighter setbacks, more detailed home design submissions and a new bylaw checklist for designers and builders.

Many homebuilders, who were given equal weight for public input at a subsequent meeting on July 9, have cried foul at the changes.

Several have said the problem is confined to Terborg’s Westwind neighbourhood, but Cooper replied his phone “rings every seven and a half minutes” and that it was “unfair to say a small group of people are complaining.”

Builders argue that the proposed changes to house setbacks (distance to property lines) are unfair and put their businesses at risk. Many stated the changes will affect small, compact houses, although Cooper, disagreed.

“No one’s trying to take one square foot of floor space from anyone. I’ve worked real hard to make sure the (existing) floor area ratios are respected"

Race, ethnicity and nationality became a sidebar to the technical discussions.

One of many South Asian homebuilders defended the right of new homeowners who are, for the most part, believed to be new, wealthy mainland Chinese immigrants.

“There's a sleeping dragon here and they have a right too. …In the 1960s houses were built for affordability. That's not the case in Richmond anymore; it's a luxury market now, people have money and they want houses that they can build out,” he said.

The July 8 open house was predominantly older Caucasian residents and a minority of South Asian homebuilders; however, at least two ethnic Chinese people stood up to voice different opinions.

One man said he was a new immigrant from Hong Kong and liked big houses.

"If you control too much, do we go back to [the] old town? The city is developing. Some things, we need to change,” he said.

Another Asian woman, stating she was a long time resident, made an impassioned plea stating she was "so sad" to see old residents (that she described as Caucasians) move away and new residents putting up gates and not speaking to her.

The July 9 “builders” meeting discussion was geared more toward technical bylaw discussions as opposed to how mega homes appear to be a symbol of the social impacts of gentrification, wealth migration, and as some suggested, a lack of political leadership to mend fences, both literally and figuratively (only councillors Chak Au and Alexa Loo attended both meetings).

Builder/real estate agent Raman Kooner maintained the need to look closely at compact lots differently than bigger lots.

"Are we trying to achieve affordable housing? Are we trying to maximize use of our land? Or are we sitting here trying to make the odd person who's not getting sunlight happy?" said Kooner, sparking an emotional response from resident Nita Sharma.

"I don't think we should trivialize the issue of sunlight because it is everybody's right," she said, accusing builders of “befuddling” the issue.

“You are creating hostility for these people who move into these huge homes that have not been thought through," she said.

@WestcoastWood

gwood@richmond-news.com

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