NEWS

Monster homes: a plus-sized issue for candidates

11/05/2014 10:52 EST | Updated 01/05/2015 05:59 EST
At first glance, the denuded hill opposite Sander Heynemans' West Vancouver house looks like the famous World War II battleground on Iwo Jima, but with a flag raised by home builders as opposed to American soldiers.

A war is going on in this neighbourhood all the same.

"I'm more than a lot number and I'm more than just the property lines," says Heynemans. "I'm the guy that lives there, and I'm the (guy) that has to put up with this for the next two or three years."

The so-called "monster" home in question has already been the subject of a BC Supreme Court lawsuit, not to mention front page stories in the local press. It's easy to cast as big development versus little people, but a more subtle fight is going on, one played out in council chambers around the Lower Mainland.

For people like Heynemans, a long-time owner of an older, modest house on a quiet set of streets off Marine Drive, it's about rapid change to the character of his neighbourhood, both in terms of the look of the houses and the attitude of the people occupying them. This is the second large, new home to go in; he doesn't talk to the owners of the first.

"So we've gone from no fences and the best neighbours, to people who plunk this in front of you," he says, pointing to the high, cement foundation of an outdoor swimming pool.

Room to raise a family

Work on the newest house began in June, with the stripping of nearly an acre of land and demolition of an old home on the property. Next door neighbours David and Amber Trent sued the new owner, Dong Biao Huang, over alleged safety concerns. 

In his response, Huang says he's building a 12,500 square foot home, basement and garage included. He claims he needs the space to house his four children and his wife's elderly parents. Huang also says he obtained every permit the district required. He estimates his losses sue to work stoppage at about $150,000.

That is the other side of this story. The sky-high price of real estate means buyers want to squeeze every last inch out of their properties. And realtors fear restrictive construction bylaws will turn prospective clients away.

"West Vancouver is no longer a fishing village," real estate agent Marc Burrows told a council meeting considering changes to the district's bylaws. "The impact this is going to have on the real estate industry - which in my opinion is the backbone of West Vancouver - is going to be way more drastic than people are actually going to be taking into consideration."

At that same meeting, West Vancouver District's council moved unanimously to begin community consultation on a bylaw to address form and character in new homes as early as 2015. Heynemans and the Trents spoke at the meeting, but by far the majority of attendees were there to oppose any restrictions on allowable square-footage.

"If the district wants to explore this further, then it should on the basis of clear and convincing establish what benefit the preservationists stand to lose," said Susanne Stacey, speaking for the West Vancouver Housing Association. "The district should not just freeze development to give a free ride to a few people who don't want development and in turn adversely affect the property values of many others in the district."

Self versus community interest

A similar meeting in Port Moody saw an overflow crowd of hundreds pack into a theatre to discuss the scenic neighbourhood of Pleasantside, where rustic cottages are losing ground and views of North Burrrard Inlet to massive, boxy mega-homes.

The city is considering a change to the way building height and property grade are calculated, to better protect the scenic views that are a big draw for residents. But as in West Vancouver, many homeowners fear a proposal to include basements and garages in allowable floor space would diminish property value. 

"We understand that old stock has to be replaced and it has to meet modern needs," Pleasantside Community Association head David Stuart told Port Moody City councillors. "In a lot of ways, we're balancing self-interest and community interest. And that's not new to council and that's not new to this community."

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