Friday, July 10, 2009

A neighbour’s response to the Morningstar letter

The letter from Morningstar shown below was received on the same day as the notice from the city of Delta regarding the public hearing. I too have written to the Council expressing my opposition to this request from the developer.

Issue 1: Illegal Suites
We have many concerns regarding the potential for illegal suites that approval of full-depth basements would create. While bylaws do exist to prevent the installation of illegal suites, the enforcement of that bylaw is insufficient and there are illegal suites all across North Delta. A simple perusal of the real estate listings will amply demonstrate that fact. The simple fact is that illegal suites exist despite regulations preventing them, just as despite the Delta Police’s efforts, not ALL motorists on Nordel Way adhere to the 60kph speed limit.

At the 2006 public meeting about this project, the developer stated that these homes would have “strong design controls” to prevent illegal suites. The developer now wants to change the design and pass the responsibility for preventing an illegal suite on to us, the development’s neighbours, with the expectation that we report homes with illegal suites.

To quote from their letter: “This means that if someone builds a secondary suite, inspectors can go in WHEN A NEIGHBOUR COMPLAINS…” Why are WE now expected to assume this responsibility when the developer goes away with the profits from the development and none of the aftermath?

In the letter from Sunstone, the developer poses the question “Why is Morningstar applying for the bylaw change?” They then talk about the potential uses for a FULL HEIGHT (my emphasis) basement as a den, a playroom, a guest room and other uses. These are all valid uses for a FULL HEIGHT basement. The intended use for the cellar with which these homes were to be built (not a basement, a cellar – a cellar is limited to a 6’4” ceiling) is as a place to locate the furnace, hot water tank, and miscellaneous storage. Cellars are not intended to become finished living space. Cellars do not require windows or emergency exits because people don’t live there, they go in, change the furnace filter and come out; they go in, grab the winter coats from storage, put the summer clothes away and come back out. They do not play games or entertain down there, nor do they temporarily house their visiting relatives there.

If an illegal suite is built, the developer and council expect the existing and well-established neighbourhood to deal with it—thereby pitting neighbour against neighbour, a situation in which nobody wins, and transfers the developer’s problem to the neighbourhood, which will have to deal with it for decades after the developer’s holding company has been dissolved.

Issue 2: Square Footage Exemption from Property Taxes
The developer then states in their letter that “After selling 90 homes in Sunstone and presenting our show homes to thousands of people, the question we received from the majority of them was, ‘Why don’t the homes have basements?’” The answer is that Delta limits the ratio of a home’s square footage to its lot size.

An excerpt from a Public Information Meeting
Q: (Resident) For the homes with a maximum of 2,300 ft², are basements allowed to be added to the square footage?
A: Oleg Verbenkov (Pacific Land Group) The bylaw regulates the house size by the size of the lot. The average house size total includes the basement space. Non-habitable space, such as a crawlspace is not counted.

Cellars, by definition, DO NOT count towards a home’s square footage, but basements DO. In Richmond, this limit was referred to as the “monster house” bylaw – if you wanted to build a 5000 sq.ft. home, you needed a large lot on which to build it. On Modesto Place, the developer has chosen very small (especially compared to their neighbours on Wiltshire Boulevard) lot sizes. With small lot sizes, come smaller square footage limits for each house. Since cellars don’t count, and basements do, towards the home’s total square footage, the change of these homes from cellars to basements means that the ratio of square footage to lot size would exceed the bylaw’s limit.

For example, what was a 2400 square foot home with a 1200 square foot cellar or crawlspace becomes a 3600 square foot home (with 1200 square feet of that unfinished basement) on a postage-stamp sized lot. This would dramatically change the character of the neighbourhood, something that the developers had assured us would not happen. At the public meetings, the developer went to great pains to assure Council and the neighbourhood that these houses would integrate into the existing neighbourhoods very well.

And since 3600 square feet of house exceeds the allowable building size for that small lot size, they are asking “that in-ground basements would be exempted from floor area calculations.” This would then exempt the basement’s square footage from property tax calculations, and creates a special case for these homes that other Delta homeowners do not benefit from.

These homes would provide a “property tax free finishable basement” since a third of the house has been granted a special exemption from property taxes. Further, that free basement now has illegal suite potential. In addition, any that are converted to illegal suites, use additional municipal services—and they won’t have to pay taxes for those, either.

This application stems from one issue, but that one issue causes two more problems. The developer wants to solve these problems by special exemption rather than dealing with the initial issue.

That issue is that the developer wants to upgrade the in-ground floor from a cellar that provides useful storage to a basement that provides additional, untaxed, square footage to their buyer.

The currently approved cellar design is not a “fire/safety hazard”
. It is the upgrade of the cellar to a basement which may then become finished, living space that poses the “fire/safety hazard”. It is the upgrade that is driving the concerns and request for the partial in-ground design, not the current design’s cellar. If the initial request to allow a basement rather than a cellar is approved, two more problems arise: illegal suite potential and the square footage to lot size ratio problem.

The developer’s solution to the square footage ratio problem is to ask for an exemption. Such an exemption would reduces the property tax payable for the newly exempted, oversized home on its overbuilt lot, and creates a special case for these homes that other Delta homeowners do not benefit from. So not only would they consume more resources because of the extra occupants (larger homes generally house larger families), Delta Council would be allowing them to do so on a reduced-property tax basis, a situation which is inherently unfair, and unreversable.

The developer wants the initial issue and the two subsequent two problems solved by exemptions only because some visitors to their show homes have asked why the existing (and nearly, if not completely, sold out) homes in the first phase of the project do not have basements. The answer is, quite simply, that the lot sizes are so small that all the available square footage has been used in the ground and second floors. Only a crawl space was possible below ground.

The simple solution to this problem is to deny the applicant’s request for the upgrade to a full basement and leave the home designs as they were proposed with a cellar or crawl space. The cellar does not pose a fire/safety hazard. The cellar does not count towards total house square footage calculations. Problems solved. And let’s face it, the developer’s representative(s) have done an impressive job of selling their newly built homes with cellars, despite current market conditions.

Surely, council and the surrounding neighbourhoods are not expected to compromise a long-term development’s plan because of short-term concerns in the local real estate market.

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