THE prospect of adding an outdoor staircase to a West Vancouver mansion ignited a debate about monster houses in the municipality at a council meeting Monday.
The staircase, which would connect ground level to the deck, would extend about four feet past the district-mandated rear yard setback on the home, which is under construction on 21st Street.
An unclear drawing led to a miscommunication between staff and the builder, ultimately leading to the variance request, according to director of planning and lands Bob Sokol.
The request for an exception is symptomatic of a host of manipulations that take place in West Vancouver, according to Coun. Michael Lewis, who compared the situation with homeowners who dig out land on their lot in order to sneak in a basement that won't be counted in the floor plan.
"Would it have been absolutely impossible to redesign the deck to accommodate the stairs in a way that complied with the setbacks? I just am hard-pressed to have much sympathy at all with this application. If there was a safety concern; if there was some issue about egress in case of a fire; give me something - but honest to God," Lewis said.
The variance was protested by neighbour John Mahon.
"We've got a monster home invasion happening," he said. "I'm not really unemotional about this house that's come along and blocked my view. It's got windows facing into my kitchen, (my) bedroom."
Mahon's request to deny the variance received support from Coun. Bill Soprovich.
"When you max out on a property, on a speculation like this, going for an extra bit, it rubs everybody the wrong way, especially neighbours that have to be looking at it," Soprovich said. The district currently has no bylaws to restrict giant homes that dwarf their neighbours, Soprovich added.
Turning down the staircase could present a challenge for the homeowner, said Mayor Michael Smith.
"If council does not approve this stairway how are people going to get off the deck onto the ground? Are they supposed to jump or put a rope ladder down?" he asked.
"Let's be quite clear: one can get onto the deck, out of the house. It's not like you're going to have a rope ladder to get on and off it," Lewis responded.
Addressing the hardship associated with refusing the variance, Lewis grilled district staff.
"Are you telling me you cannot make the deck smaller and accommodate a stairwell?" he asked.
"You'd have to demolish a portion of the building," said Geri Boyle, the district's manager of community planning.
"You'd have to make a change to the deck?" Lewis said. "Fine. That's hardly 'demolish.'"
Council voted unanimously to deny the variance, but the larger issues of monster houses, infill housing and coach houses proved more divisive later in the evening as council debated a housing action plan.
Just who will live in coach houses and what effect their creation will have on the established character of distinct West Vancouver neighbourhoods was a concern for Soprovich.
"Where specifically are we going to have these places? I've seen them. And I don't like what I see in certain areas of Vancouver and North Vancouver," Soprovich said, advising caution as council moves forward.
The market for alternate housing in the district is clear, according to Coun. Trish Panz.
"Coun. Soprovich, when you say for who, I would say that infill housing or coach housing is for most of the people in this community. Because that's who's coming to ask for it," she said.
Establishing a variety of housing options is necessary for ensuring diversity within the community, according to Panz.
The district needs to quicken its pace when dealing with housing issues, according to Coun. Mary-Ann Booth. "We have a dialogue that was prepared in 2008. We're now five years away from that already. We have 30 years of concerns about increasing size and perceived bulk of new houses," she said.
"Can any of these timelines be shortened so that we can move these forward without another lost year?"
The district has made progress by legalizing secondary suites, said Sokol, adding that one bylaw allowing coach houses and another dealing with housing bulk should be in front of council by the end of the year.
Booth's call for urgency was echoed by Smith. "I think it should be a much higher priority than looking at it in 2014," he said.
The district's current policies have been ineffective in preventing monster houses, according to Smith.
"We don't count the decks. We don't seem to have a sensible policy for height, we don't seem to have a sensible policy for basements, and we don't seem to have enough pride as a community to say to the building community and the spec builders, 'There's a difference in building in West Vancouver than if you're building in Newton.' I don't have any issue with saying we should be treated differently," he said.
Many of the homes are also out of touch with the community due to a lack of large families in the district, according to Smith.
"The market doesn't need what we're building," he said. "We're building these monster houses with five, six, seven bedrooms and nobody in them."
Coun. Michael Lewis requested the planning department's work plan on housing during the next two years be tabled for a few weeks to incorporate changes suggested by council, much to the chagrin of Coun. Craig Cameron.
"We're saying to staff, you need to make progress on these things more quickly, so what we want you to do is spend the next two weeks figuring out how to come back to us to get approval," he said. "We're making more work that is not to our objectives."
The tabling motion passed 4-3, leaving Sokol unsure of how to proceed.
"Mr. Mayor, I do not know what I'm going to be reporting back on because I don't think I received clear direction," Sokol said.
"You could theoretically come back with a change to your work plan, or you could not," Smith told Sokol.