Illegal space bylaw good for building industry 

Changes allow potential buyers to build above board

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Builder Bob Deeks isn't convinced his newest clients would be building in Whistler, pouring millions into the resort, had the municipality's illegal space bylaws not changed.

"One of the critical components for them was to have a large house," explained Deeks, of RDC Fine Homes, who has been hired to build a new home on Green Lake for his Vancouver-based clients.

His clients like to entertain, so size was a factor in their decision: "I don't know whether they would have made a decision (to build in Whistler)... if they would have been restricted to the original size constraints in the original bylaws."

The bylaw change has paved the way for the potential to build up to roughly 12,000 square feet, depending on how the house is designed, on the lakefront lot in Emerald. The home as to meet all height requirements and setbacks from the edges of the property and will likely not be that big.

"Their intent is to build something smaller," said Deeks.

But it will be bigger than what would have been allowed in the past.

Prior to council changing the bylaws in the spring, Deeks could have delivered a 5,000 square foot home — legally — in addition to a 1,800 square foot auxiliary building.

Or, he could have built a much larger home with hidden illegal space.

That's a decision hundreds of homeowners and builders have made in the past in attempts to circumvent Whistler's prescriptive building bylaws.

Case in point: council approved a setback variance for a house on Treetops Lane earlier this month, built over two lots and connected with an underground tunnel, without permission. Also built was more than 3,500 square feet of space not on the books — a bedroom plus en suite, massage room, wine room, gymm all hidden space that the municipality and fire department knew nothing about.

Over the years there has been gross non-compliance of the size bylaw in Whistler. Homeowners and builders went to great lengths to expand the space without making it too obvious.

Temporary walls covered future media rooms; 18-ft. lofted ceilings were later filled to create two storeys; fake floors were subsequently removed to create wine rooms.

"For a long time in Whistler there was no flexibility when it came to build size," said builder Tim Regan of Vision Pacific.

"Some of those (potential) buyers left."

Deeks remembers in 2003 and 2004 when the high-end home market was booming.

"You had people who were used to resorts in other parts of the world where nobody really judged them for whether they wanted a 10,000 square foot house or whether they wanted a 30,000 square foot house," he said.

And the ones who stayed found ways around the rules. It became, de facto, just how things got built in Whistler.

"By sweeping everything under the rug, I think the community was creating a real safety issue," said Deeks.

Council's solution was to create the illegal space task force and ultimately approve Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 1992, earlier this year.

That bylaw allows a newly defined "basement floor area" to be excluded from the calculation of the gross floor area (GFA) in all detached and duplex building.

Basements can be built to a maximum of 125 per cent of the first floor area.

That Treetops Lane home, for example, now has no illegal space because now the basement isn't calculated in the GFA.

It may not be the perfect solution — effectively having no repercussions for breaking the bylaws — but it is taking Whistler one step closer to resolving the widespread problem in the resort.

And that's council's focus. Getting applications into the hall — whether to legitimize existing space or space that's yet to come.

"I don't know if the Treetops approval has paved the way to more applications to come in from the cold," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "I have no doubt that had we not approved it, it would have had a chilling effect."

It's a welcome solution, said Regan.

"Nobody wants risk," he said. "We just want to foster an environment where we can be successful."

Regan is building a home on spec at his new Southlands neighbourhood.

Though he can build up to 12,000 square feet as per the new bylaw, he's opting to build 5,000 square feet and leaving the option to build more should a potential buyer want more.

"That seems to be where that market is selling at," said Regan of the roughly $6 million price point, or roughly $1,200 per square foot.

Realtors, too, welcome the change.

"There's less risk for buyers and it does allow them some increased flexibility in determining the size of the home they might want, which prior to this period made you a bit of a criminal," said Pat Kelly, owner of The Whistler Real Estate Company.

"You used to have to sneak around. Now you don't sneak around and I think that's a good thing."



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