By Marty Douglas
“Good fences make good neighbors.” – Robert Frost in Mending Wall.
Excuse the spelling for those of you retentive types who prefer the ‘ou’ in ‘neighbour’, but I’m trying to be a good neighbor.
Having and being a good neighbour may not be a basic property right but it is an essential part of community. The Quality of Life philosophy embraced by the Canadian real estate industry is all about community values, which are, I would like to believe, an extension of family values. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be a part of some families and I’m sure you might run screaming from some of my relatives. Family or community values are something like ethics then, in that we measure everyone else’s against our standards. And our own standards are unique and sometimes sacrosanct.
This column came as a result of a recent breakfast conversation and involved a convoluted tale of a neighbourhood now pitted against itself over the actions of one resident who set himself up as the sole arbiter and overseer of municipal justice. You know the symptoms – measuring fence heights, questioning the clothes line, eyeing the RV parked in the driveway for a month. The issue in question has its seeds in a building scheme restrictive covenant on the title of all the properties in a middle class residential block in a city here on Vancouver Island. Among other things, the covenant stipulates homes shall be used only as a private dwelling for not more than one family.
Needless to say, like all good Canadians, one neighbour assumed it didn’t apply to him and since the municipal zoning was permissive, he went ahead, built a suite and rented it out to an unrelated tenant. Eventually, our local arbiter/overseer discovered the situation, sued under the covenant and was successful in having the tenant evicted. The judge was silent on the matter of the seeming contradiction of the municipal zoning. The suit resulted in costs being awarded against the wannabe landlord who, when he added his own court costs, found himself out about $30,000 and a tenant.
This is not the stuff that promotes a block party and during the process, neighbours aligned themselves on one side or the other, some financing the lawsuit, others staying clear of the shrapnel.
Living between the houses of the two litigants are a working couple, empty-nesters, who, seven years ago, welcomed to their home his mom and dad. Checking with city hall, they made sure all building code requirements were met for a suite. Even got a permit. I know that last bit is a surprise but it’s true. During the first nastiness, they refused to support the lawsuit for obvious reasons.
You can guess what happened next. Fresh from his financial victory and aware of who is living next door, our anti-hero set a bailiff on his neighbours one suppertime with service for a legal action, the result of which would have the son evict his mother and father from their home. What is particularly galling is the anti-hero used to talk over the fence like a real neighbour and invite himself to family outings.
Well – what to do? How our story unfolds might be a future column update but for now the lawyers are lining up, the politicians are being buttonholed and armchair quarterbacks are pontificating. Other than the fact the anti-hero has the law on his side as far as the covenant goes, the crux of this issue has to do with the occupancy of the suite and the definition of “single family residence”. I think you would be hard pressed to say the suite itself was illegal, given the municipal zoning allows suites. One might argue, as some have in the past, a building scheme has no right to restrict the zoning established by the higher municipal authority.
Our city bylaws contain a number of definitions. “Household” means an individual; two or more persons related by blood, marriage, adoption or foster parenthood; or not more than five unrelated persons. A single residential dwelling contains one dwelling unit. A dwelling unit has only one set of kitchen facilities. A secondary suite is limited by size and percentage of habitable floor area and a granny flat is an accessory building on a single residential use lot.
So if the suite is legal as far as the zoning is concerned then, subject to the definitions in the covenant, it’s the unrelated tenant that is the problem. The problem might be solved by removing the kitchen facilities. Hopefully, neither our municipalities nor our neighbours will argue with a family’s basic right to provide shelter to its own.
That just leaves the problem of the neighbourhood.
How do you fix a dysfunctional group? If you were a Realtor with knowledge of the rancour, would the poisoned neighbourhood meet the definition of a “material latent defect” requiring disclosure? Before you answer, would you disclose a half-way house, a pedophile, a crack house or drug dealer? Ask yourself if the knowledge of the type of neighbours you are considering living beside would effect your decision on price or whether to make an offer.
Last thought. Terry Bradshaw, not only a great quarterback but a hall of fame motivational speaker, said, “One in three people is ugly. Have a look at the folks on either side of you. If they seem pretty good looking to you then chances are . . .”
How good a neighbour are you?
Posted: 2010-03-15 03:48:51
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