Presenting to Council

In January, 2013, Iago the cat had never seen a dog.
In January, 2013, Iago the cat had never seen a dog.

Do you believe people who say Maple Ridge City Hall is not open and transparent? Have you ever called up and asked someone a question? Try it!

Our Heritage Revitalization Agreement went before Council for the first time on January 7, 2013. As is common practice, the planner who was working with us presented our application at a Committee of the Whole. We had a chance to add some words to the presentation and I did so.

Through the miracle of modern technology, you can watch the presentation here. Skip ahead to minute 38:00. Our part of the meeting lasts about 12 minutes.

What is a Committee of the Whole? Mostly a chance for a less formal Q&A and debate among Council about items that will come before the regular council meeting the next day for a vote. Here is what the Maple Ridge website says:

Committee of the Whole
Committee of the Whole is the initial venue for review and debate of issues. No voting takes place on bylaws or resolutions. A decision is made to send an item to Council for debate and vote or to send an item back to staff for more information or clarification. As a rule, Committee of the Whole meets on the first and third Monday of each month starting at 1:00 pm in Council Chambers at Municipal Hall. A Community Forum is held following adjournment of Committee of the Whole. The public has an opportunity during this Forum to speak to Council on any subject, with the exception of Public Hearing bylaws that have not reached a conclusion.

In our case, I wanted to make Council aware of the time and expense we had already invested into our house reno and preservation. I wanted to ask how many people in our situation would have thrown up their hands and walked away.

In retrospect I can see the problem. We citizens want low-cost government and we want to attract investment, industry and development to Maple Ridge, but we don’t want to pay the people who we need to process all the applications that this growth gives rise to. We would prefer that the people we already have simply work harder.

Beavers last year
Beavers last year

Tonight I visited Council Chambers again. I was dressed in my Beaver Scout Leader uniform. My son was in his Beaver uniform and my daughter was in her Cub Scout uniform. We were there to celebrate Waste Reduction Week. Ridge Meadows Recycling Society had created a Recycling badge with local Scouts and Guides and they were presenting them.

You can see the video of the Recycling Society’s presentation with contributions from Scouts and Guides at this link. Skip to the 13:00 minute mark. It is remarkable that Ridge Meadows Recycling was able to partner with both Guides and Scouts on this. Such cooperation is unusual and exemplifies the community-spirit of Maple Ridge.

After the meeting, I was waiting for my son who had decided to have a leisurely visit to the washroom. I was standing in the lobby under a ceiling speaker and listening to the proceedings in Council Chambers. A woman was speaking. She was comparing how many planners, plan checkers, etc there are in Maple Ridge, Langley and Coquitlam city halls. She compared how many applications the planners in Maple Ridge process simultaneously compared with these other comparable municipalities.

The opinion I expressed in my last post was confirmed for me; Maple Ridge planners are overworked.  Check out the video of the meeting linked above for more details.

If innovative processes like the Heritage Revitalization Agreement and the newly minted business incentive plan are going to work, we need enough staff to handle them. Otherwise they become an empty promise.

In the ongoing municipal election campaign we hear candidates complain that permits and applications take too long, but that the answer is greater efficiency, not more staff. In the context of the above information, I would need more details on what efficiencies these candidates believe are possible. Otherwise, I assume they have no idea what they are talking about.

But back to Hammond Forever House. Here is the text of what I said to council on January 7, 2013. The next evening, Council voted to grant our application first and second reading.

Thank you for considering our application for a Heritage Revitalization Agreement. Leanne and I are proud to be one of the first applicants and we hope that many more people will find the HRA helpful in preserving heritage homes like ours.

I’d like to offer a homeowner’s perspective on the HRA process.

We moved to Hammond in 2007 and, like many people of our generation, we would never have been able to afford to buy a house without the help of our families.

The little yellow house with its new porch and paint.
The little yellow house with its new porch and paint.

We immediately began improvements to make the house comfortable and safe for a toddler and a new baby and with an eye to preserving heritage elements. The subsequent work on the little yellow house alone cost us $50 000 and took five months.The last major item on the to-do list was the bathroom of the main house. This room has foundation issues, mold issues, carpenter ant issues, low ceiling issues and, Leanne wants me to mention, the floor under the toilet squishes when you sit down.

We were tired so we turned to a contractor who quoted us $20 000. “Wow,” we thought, “that’s a lot.” We asked if we required permits. The answer was, as I’m sure council can guess, “well, technically yes.”

A preliminary phone call to the district taught us that there was no standard path for us to obtain a permit. In fact, it looked like there was no legal way to do the relatively small project that still needs to be done. However, when we spoke to the Heritage department, everything became possible.

It was clear, however, that instead of gradual improvements over time which would mean a Heritage Alteration Permit each time, we should put all our future plans for the property into the HRA application. That is what you have in your hands.

The points we’d like to make are first that the HRA is an essential option for homeowners like us. In Hammond, there are at least four cases where a two-story garage has been tacked on to the side of a one-story cottage. The HRA could have allowed for more reasonable renovations.

Secondly, the Tax Exemption as an incentive, is a good idea.

Another HRA case but this one moved the house and increased density
Another HRA case but this one moved the house and increased density

We’ve heard that the previous HRA applicants have all had, as part of their plans, an increase in density. I believe that means they plan to sell a portion or in some other way profit from the development, while preserving at least one heritage building.When we look around Hammond at the single-family lots with their small, decaying heritage houses, we wonder how those owners could be persuaded to preserve them.

People ask us why we don’t subdivide and sell the little yellow house, but that house pre-dates the main house and the siting of the buildings tells a story.

To put the HRA into perspective in our case, I’d like to compare the costs and the benefits.

On the benefit side, the five-year tax exemption would amount to $7335.70 if we use the 2012 assessment. [based on 2012 tax rate]

On the cost side to date:

-the architect, engineer and surveyor so far cost $8460.31

-the Statement of Significance and Conservation plan cost $4144

-separating the services to the two houses cost $19 177.67 including $12 000 to the district for a new sewer connection and the last quote we have for the required storm sewer is an additional $12 000. We don’t know how much the sidewalks are going to be.

Anyway, so far we have personally spent $32 781.98.

Note that we would not have incurred any of these costs had we simply renovated the bathroom for 20 or 30 000 dollars back in June 2011 when we began the HRA process, and here we are a year and a half later still sitting on a squishy toilet.

I guess the question we have for council is how many homeowners in our position will do the same. It’s probably a question for another day, and Leanne and I would like to be part of the fine-tuning process, especially as it relates to Hammond.

Perhaps there is a case for special consideration for property owners who are benefiting the community and not making a million doing it. Perhaps there is also a case for a further 5 years tax exemption in some cases.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that Leanne and I believe in the concept of the Heritage Revitalization Agreement. We hope council will look favourably on our application. Thank you very much for your consideration.

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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