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‘Blocked by history’: Discrepancy in strata building plans frustrating RMOW, homeowners

Unauthorized work done over the years can stall already costly upgrades 
N-Building Plans 28.38 FILE PHOTO BY CLARE OGILVIE
The Northern Lights complex in 2014 was rezoned to legitimize close to 4,000 square metres of illegal space.

Senior staff at the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) say what was likely unauthorized work done in strata units over the years has led to a discrepancy in building plans, making it difficult for homeowners to get renovations and upgrades done. 

According to the RMOW’s general manager of infrastructure services James Hallisey, differences between strata unit plans and what the building department has on file are popping up “very frequently” as owners look to upgrade older units, complicating what is already a hefty permitting backlog at municipal hall. 

“I don’t understand exactly the mechanism of why those differences occur, but it is causing quite a lot of problems for when people come in and want to upgrade, renovate, do something better in their place,” Hallisey said in a recent interview, adding that “20 years ago something was done that wasn’t onside with the plans we have anymore.” 

The discrepancies can take a few different forms, from minor upgrades not registered with the muni, to expansions beyond what the zoning allows. In most cases, the issue can be traced back to builds from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, when “the drawings weren’t great and the process was maybe a little more vague,” explained Councillor Duane Jackson, a designer, planner and builder by trade. 

“It’s really complicated, and the stratas have it the worst,” he added. “You’ve got old owners that have owned their unit for 30 years, and then you’ve got a new buyer and the new buyer wants to put in a new kitchen, but because the old owner doesn’t want to spend any money on fees or might have something in their crawlspace they don’t want people to know about, they don’t want to support moving an update forward. So you end up with a new buyer being kind of stuck.” 

For homeowners, the inconsistencies can add to an already costly process. 

“If the drawings that they’ve been given aren’t accurate, then they may be looking at a higher cost for engineering to make sure the plans they’re proposing actually match what’s on the ground,” said Beau Craig, director of strata management and real-estate services company, Whistler Resort Management. “So higher consulting costs, potentially, more consulting professionals like engineers and architects and things of that nature, because they have to measure onsite as opposed to relying on drawings.” 

In a year in which a perfect storm of factors, including staff shortages, April’s cyber attack, and an unprecedented number of home renovation applications, has created a logjam of permits at the RMOW, getting building plans in order adds another hurdle for planners to overcome. 

‘There’s a lot of internal staff discussion right now about how do we get through that. If it’s a life-safety issue, whether it’s no safe egress in a fire and things like that, we can’t go forward very far with that. That just can’t be permitted,” Hallisey said. “Then there are other rules [where] places have been expanded and they’re just bigger than what the zoning allows, but it’s been like that for 20 years and obviously hasn’t impacted anybody too dramatically. We’re looking at how we navigate through that right now.” 

By no means a new issue locally, the RMOW has encouraged strata corporations to come forward and find a way to bring illegal construction into compliance. In 2014, the owners at the 45-unit Northern Lights complex on Tantalus Drive pushed for the property to be rezoned for an additional 4,000 square metres of gross floor area in order to legitimize so-called “void spaces” in basements and attics that were developed illegally over time on the sloping site. 

Any such effort, however, would require ample time and resources—not to mention buy-in from a majority of owners. 

“For a strata to remedy things like this, it’s not just one unit, it’s nearly all the units. The whole strata has to agree and then they have to hire an architect, they have to do an as-built survey,” Jackson said. 

“I just think it’s something that we need to be aware of and there are a number of frustrated people out there who can’t move forward because they’re somewhat blocked by history. It’d be nice to allow people to invest in their property.”