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West Van homeowner ordered to remove unpermitted staircase

'No one should be walking up and down that stairwell,' says mayor

A West Vancouver homeowner who built a deck and steep set of stairs into the environmentally protected area of Cypress Creek has been denied their request to keep the structure.

District staff were first alerted to the stairs on the steep slope of the property on the 4300 block of Rockridge Road in August 2020. To build anything within 15 metres of a watercourse’s top of bank requires a special environmental permit, which the owners did not have. The project would have required a separate building permit, which the owners did not apply for.

At the time, district staff asked the owners to apply for an environmental permit retroactively. The owners did, but on closer inspection, staff determined the structures were still in violation of the watercourse protection guidelines and denied the permit.

Cypress Creek is a fish-bearing stream and it also feeds into the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific Science Enterprise lab on Marine Drive.

Under the district’s development bylaw, property owners are entitled to appeal directly to council after a permit has been denied, which they did on Monday night (May 10).

The owners argued they needed the stairs and deck to enjoy the creek, monitor for security threats and keep an eye on the environmental conditions of their property.

Speaking for his clients, arborist Andrew Vander Helm said the topography of the site was such that, without permits, the family would have essentially no way to access the eastern half of the lot.

“Because the lot is so steep and the deck is so far away, I’m not sure how this affects fish habitat, which is the objective of the whole development permit area,” he said, noting neighbouring properties have been allowed to build much closer to the creek because the “top of bank” is measured differently there. “If you vote to not keep the deck and the stairs, then there's really no safe way to use their property.”

Council, however, unanimously rejected the appeal.

“If you see it in real life, it is a very egregious breach of our guidelines,” said Coun. Nora Gambioli. “There's no two ways about it. The owner told us that they just didn't know, but as we know, ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Mayor Mary-Ann Booth added the stairs would almost certainly not have met building code specs.

“I did have quite honestly some serious concerns about the safety of it and no one should be walking up and down that stairwell,” she said.

District staff say they will now “take immediate steps to have the structure removed.” The owners will also be required to remediate the property back to its natural state but apart from that, there are no penalties or fines for the unpermitted work.

“If they chose not to take it out voluntarily, we'd likely be back to council seeking an injunction for court proceedings to have it taken out,” said Jim Bailey, director of planning and development.

In September of last year, staff were alerted to trees being removed or topped on the property without permits as well. That may result in enforcement action from bylaw officers, but that has been put on hold for the time being as the owners have current applications filed to remove more trees, according to staff.

Gambioli lamented how often the municipality is tasked with dealing with property owners who beg forgiveness rather than ask permission when it comes to work without permits.

“I can think of a number of situations that this has happened since I've been on council and it does take a lot of staff time, our time and potentially time in court,” she said. “At what point do we start to get tougher with people?”

Bailey said 99 per cent of West Van residents “do the right thing” and don’t build without permits.