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A Home Renovation That Led to a Fight With City Hall - continued

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The author (in his Cedar Cottage neighbourhood home) considers half the $10,000 he paid in permit fees money well spent Paul Joseph

For the sake of a tiny addition, a homeowner with a big disinclination
for bureaucracy takes his fight to city hall

I showed the plans to my next-door neighbour of nearly 20 years. I call him Newman, although his real name is Third-Grade Ratfink. “Any problems?” None, he said. “Now, Newman,” I persisted, “the fence between our houses is falling down. Let me build a new one. My dime.” He nodded. “And while I’ve got a crew here, your front fence…it needs some work. We’ll fix that up for you.” A blank stare. I looked at his backyard: the cherry tree he hacked up to improve his satellite TV reception; the heap of rotting lumber that harboured skunks and rats. “I’ve got a chainsaw, and I’ll be hauling debris away. Let me clean that stuff up for you.” Okay, he said, and went back to building a shanty-style storage shed against the far side of his house.

In Vancouver’s game of real estate makeovers, I am Monopoly’s Marvin Gardens sandwiched between Baltic and Mediterranean avenues. In 1989, I was one of the first gentrifying influences on my street. On one side was a senile, belligerent old lady. On the other, a crack house with a Rottweiler. Today, my neighbours are the last holdouts against the wave of West Side refugees. Ducktail Bob, I’ll call him, is a former plywood mill employee and heir to an East Van real estate million who spends his days collecting beer cans and feeding peanuts to the seagulls, crows, pigeons, raccoons, squirrels and other vermin. Yet he occasionally reveals the wisdom of an idiot savant. “You don’t own your house,” he told me after the inspector arrived. “You just bought the right to use it the way the city tells you to.”

On the other side I have Ratfink. The day after the stop-work order, I caught his attention across the partly rebuilt fence. “So,” I said. “The city shut me down.”

“Already?” he replied. Then he nervously said the word again and again, as though the repetition might undo the giveaway.

“Why would they do that?” I asked.
“A neighbour phoned to complain,” he said. “Not me. I would never complain. But remember, on Saturday, you were sawing? You shouldn’t work on a Saturday.”

So was my attention turned to the greater authorities at 12th and Cambie, who in due course sent notices and instructions and requests for lot corner elevations, tree drip lines, an energy utilization statement…

The city website’s maze of zoning guidelines, building code rules, and policy update bulletins was both incomplete and impenetrable. How do you calculate the square footage of your house? Measure to the outer extremity, they say. Do eaves count? Depends. Gutters? I’m still not sure. Is the house’s outer extremity the foundation wall, the siding, the corner caps, or the flower boxes? No idea. Yet the boards that cover the siding on the corners add 22.5 square feet to my three-storey house. Include all staircases, they say. Not exterior staircases, but don’t expect them to say so where it might be helpful. When is a covered porch not counted as a covered porch? When it’s the four-by-eight-foot area generally considered a landing. But I caution you, that’s just hearsay. 

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