The kids on July 16, 2011
The kids on July 16, 2011

I learned a lot about how municipal government works over the last few years.

The day after the meeting I took this photo
The day after the meeting I took this photo

On July 15, 2011 Leanne and I had our first meeting with Lisa Zosiak, Heritage Planner with the District of Maple Ridge. A simple Heritage Revitalization Agreement can simply be an agreement to preserve certain identified features. Any future alterations  need a heritage alteration permit as well as the regular permits. Not nearly as scary as some people think. Future changes? OK. Stuck forever in an ancient house with no hope of alterations? No. House protected from future demolition? Absolutely.

Meanwhile, a five year tax break and help through the process is part of the deal.

Our case is not so simple, however, and maybe they never are. At a bare minimum, we need to renovate the northeast corner where the bathroom is. We also need to resolve the issue with the lot lines I told you about. Whatever we did, we were going to have to run it by City Council. Knowing that we want to improve the house in other ways besides the bathroom, we decided to plan a complete reno now instead of going through the heritage alteration permit process later.

Also, as I pointed out in my new boots post, doing it right the first time will save money in the long run. Right?

See the two houses? See that line that runs vertically straight through them? Yup.
The electrical line can be seen crossing the yard

The property line that is running through both houses presented a choice. We could either re-draw the line so that it runs East-West instead of North-South, which would put the houses on separate lots and make it possible to sell one or the other as a separate piece in the future, or consolidate the two lots into one. We decided to consolidate so as to preserve the heritage value of the entire piece and prevent the original, little yellow house (top) from ever being sold off and/or destroyed.

On our end, we proceeded as quickly as we could. We contracted the surveyor, Chris Cryderman of Underhill & Underhill (who are not hobbits),the structural engineer, Carlos Chui of Chiu Hippmann Engineering Inc. Consulting Structural Engineers, and James Burton of Birmingham & Wood Architects and Planners to write the Statement of Significance and conservation plan on July 19th. 2013. On August 2, we formally hired the architect, Annabel Vaughan who had recommended these fine folks. These were the pieces we needed to apply for the HRA and get our plans in front of Council.

On September 20th we sent the initial Statement of Significance and plans to the District and on October 3rd we received feedback. That was a pretty quick turnaround.

Things naturally slowed down from there. I won’t bore you with the details, but they included working with Annabel on the design, collecting material to send to James for the SOS, etc. The plans were more or less finished by November 22nd, 2011 but it wasn’t until five months later, April 27th, 2012 that we met Lisa again. Annabel, James, Carlos and Chris all work out of Vancouver and sometimes that distance slowed things down. They are also very good, which makes them very busy.

I took some notes at that very exciting April 27th meeting. Monday, June 18th was when Lisa planned to submit the HRA to Council. With her we anticipated possible dates for the 4 required readings, with the Heritage Alteration Permit process running parallel and concurrently. I noted:

-readings 1 and 2 on June 26th

-readings 3 and 4 on July 10th (possibly July 24th as final reading)

On June 7th, 2012 we submitted the complete Statement of Significance and Conservation Plan. All we needed now was to get feedback from the Building Department, Engineering Department and any other Department required before we could take our application to Council. That shouldn’t take long, right?

The next day, by phone, Lisa informed me that she was being assigned to a special new project and that another planner was taking over our file. He was being hired out of Surrey as a consultant or temporary planner, I think, so he was new to the District.

I got that sinking feeling.

My feeling proved correct. We were waiting for the District to give us feedback on our submissions, and I decided to trust that the new planner was going to keep us on track. I did not hear from him. I finally called him on July 4th and introduced myself. It felt like starting over from the beginning.

The clothesline and electrical line criss-crossed the backyard
The clothesline and electrical line criss-crossed the backyard

Between the news we had a new planner and my first conversation with him, we proceeded with work that we knew would be required by the engineering department. The two houses needed separate services. The sanitary (sewer) line from the little yellow house cut across the back yard, joined the line from our house and proceeded south to 114th Avenue. Similarly, the electrical power to the little house came from 114th, cut across our yard along with the phone line. I didn’t like the overhead wires or the shallow sewer line cutting through our backyard, so I was happy to get the work done. The old ceramic sewer line had already broken in one spot and been repaired. The work kept me busy while we were waiting for City Hall, too.

We wondered why the grass grew so well in that spot...
We wondered why the grass grew so well in that spot…

On July 27th we met our new planner at last. I’m not going to name him here because his part in the story is not all that positive. We went over the whole file and re-opened issues that we had already dealt with with Lisa. He felt a public hearing would be required whereas Lisa had been confident it was not. He wanted to be sure and checked with Victoria. Our new planner also shared notes from the Engineering department which hit us like a tonne of bricks. They contained what requirements Engineering would have beyond separating the services and are the subject of a future post…

As I understand it, public hearings are required whenever you re-zone, especially if you increase density like changing a single-family zoned lot to a multi-unit zoned lot; from a house to a townhouse complex, for example. In our case, when we remove the lot line and consolidate the lots, we are re-zoning. There will be one lot where before there were two, with two houses on that big lot. I argued that the density is not changing, so why would a public hearing be necessary? Why would the public care?

However, rules are rules it seems. A public hearing was in our future. I later learned that a Heritage Revitalization Agreement also requires a hearing to allow the public to comment on the Heritage Designation. I still don’t understand this but I suppose people like to comment on things. Would you object to a neighbour formally preserving their heritage property?

We were now waiting to hear from the other departments. Meanwhile, our planner went on vacation. Sigh. It’s tough to get things done in the summer.

In September my impatience started to boil over.

September 5th, after he returned he wrote in reply to my grumpiest letter yet:

I am in the midst of preparing a report and very eager to get it to Council. However, I still do not have the clarifications we spoke about from Engineering, nor referral comments from Fire or Building.   To get this moving, I am meeting with Engineering to get answers, and contacted again Fire and Building asking for their comments right away. The Heritage Branch in Victoria finally got back to us, but was not helpful in resolving the question if we need a Public Hearing or not. My manager (he was away on vacation in August) has referred the matter of the Public Hearing for a legal opinion, which I hope will be available as soon as next week.

It started to dawn on me that this new planner was in a difficult position. He was new to Maple Ridge and all the personalities in the various departments. Perhaps our project was just not fitting into the standard boxes and he was asking departments to stretch themselves in new ways.

The Heritage Revitalization Agreement is a forward-thinking initiative to address a need in our city. Without it, heritage properties that required renovation would have building codes and engineering requirements applied to them which would either destroy character-defining elements or make the work so expensive that the owners would be forgiven for giving up and tearing the place down. What was required in this process, however, was a planner to hold our hands and lead us through. What we couldn’t see was all the negotiations that went on inside City Hall between the different departments.

We demand efficiency in these processes. When we ask for a building, plumbing or electrical permit we want it fast. These departments typically work in silos. The plans go to one for approval, then are passed on to another, then another with no discussion between departments. It works pretty well and nobody gets special treatment or discriminated against. An HRA demands special treatment and I think that puts it in a special pile on the side of a lot of desks. The Weird Pile. The Problem Pile.

I imagine our poor planner, new in town, having to pester these busy departments for special treatment.

And Lisa Zosiak? Did you know she is one of five planners in Maple Ridge? I keep using that title “Heritage Planner” but of course that title is work she does in addition to all the other planning.

And why was Lisa pulled off our file? I have no doubt it was to work on the Hammond Area Plan, a huge undertaking that is unfolding very nicely, thank you very much.

It’s election time and new candidates are naturally tempted to downplay what’s working and exaggerate what’s not working in order to unseat incumbents. We’ve heard criticism that the chief administrator is overpaid. I’ve heard that is a Province-wide phenomenon. You want the best employee possible in that position. Maybe they don’t have to earn quite so much, but what are we going to do, fire them and hire a bargain basement executive? The best policy would be to honour our contract, keep our CEO happy by letting him do his job without whining about his salary and address the issue when his contract comes up. Studies have shown that beyond a certain salary, money doesn’t improve performance if the job is fulfilling.

What about the other staff? What a bargain! We invent a new position but don’t want to pay for it so we just give it an existing employee. There are at least two amazing staff members in Maple Ridge rocking at least two job titles at the same time.

Things went a little slow for us, it’s true. That is why, when I read in The Maple Ridge & Pitt Meadows News that chief administrator Jim Rule recommended to Council we hire more planners, I couldn’t agree more. Our project was one of those special projects that an outside planner needed time to get his head around. The shuffle took the wind out of our sails and set us back months.

Our journey through City Hall is not finished, and nor is my story. We have one more visit to council to go, and I can’t blame bureaucracy for all of the delay. A lot of it was on our end as you will learn.

To finish today’s essay, I would like to ask my City Council to please vote for more planners on October 28th. The investment will pay for itself, I have no doubt.

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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