While neighbouring cities are dropping the hammer on people putting additions on their homes illegally, Surrey continues to face unauthorized building at a level staff describe as” rampant.”
Conservative estimates are that the city has placed more than 100 stop-work orders on illegally constructed homes.
But when it comes to taking legal action, it’s unclear how many cases the City of Surrey is pursuing.
City solicitor Craig MacFarlane said last week he was unable to determine right away how many of illegal building cases are before the courts.
“I’d have to get back to you on that,” MacFarlane said.
MacFarlane still hasn’t returned Leader calls for clarification.
In Delta, Director of Community Planning and Development Tom Leatham said it’s that municipality’s policy to act quickly.
“That’s the message we’re trying to send. ‘We will move swiftly and harshly when we find you’,” Leatham said.
“Our policy is to jump on them real fast, and not let it slide. Word tends to get out when you come down hard on a few of them, you know, ‘you’re not going to get away with this so easily’.”
Delta begins with a graduating scale of enforcement that starts with a call from an inspector telling the homeowner to put the building back to the condition it was in on its last city approval.
If that order is followed by silence, the file goes to the legal department.
There are other options, but Leatham prefers to take legal action because the results come quickly.
“We’ve been pretty successful in getting injunctions,” Leatham said, adding the court typically gives the homeowner 60 days to tear down the illegal addition.
White Rock also prefers to act quickly.
Paul Stanton, director of planning for the City of White Rock, said the municipality mainly uses two avenues for illegal building.
“We have two recourses, either civil litigation or the other is to go through Section 57 of the Community Charter, post a notice on title (of the land), which will make it difficult for them to refinance or to sell the property,” Stanton said. The only remedy for the homeowner at that point is to restore the property to its state on last approval.
While illegal construction is not a runaway problem in White Rock, it happens from time to time.
“It happens on occasion. It’s part of why we have a bylaw enforcement function and a building inspection function,” Stanton said, adding the notice on title has achieved a much higher level of compliance than civil litigation.
In Surrey, staff acknowledge the problem is rampant.
Just weeks before the last civic election, Surrey council agreed to a request from a group called Surrey Residents Association, which wanted all legal action against illegal construction put on hold. The city placed more than 70 lawsuits in abeyance.
About six months after that council decision, building inspectors and bylaw officials said they felt as though their jobs were being viewed as some kind of joke, according to the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 402.
“When you’re trained to do a job, then you’re trained to ignore it for whatever reason, it really is demoralizing,” Laurie Larsen said at the time.
Larson, also a school trustee with Surrey First Education, said she last week she hadn’t heard any further complaints from the building department.
“Either it isn’t an issue, or other things are more important, or they’ve just resigned themselves to the fact that nothing can be done.”
If it’s the latter case, she said, it would be quite unfortunate.
Meanwhile residents continue to complain that illegal construction continues at breakneck speed in this city.
Newton resident Andrew Houghton said when he called a building inspector to complain about illegal building in his neighbourhood, she replied that the situation was “rampant across the city” and that there was nothing she could do.