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Cliff excavation worries neighbours in Oak Bay

Sunny Lane residents riled by differing bylaw rules

In the quiet Oak Bay community where Sunny Lane meets Sunset Avenue, a few Oak Bay residents say they are having trouble reconciling the difference between the rules applicable to renovations and development.

Three homeowners from the area came to the last council meeting to voice concerns, all in relation to a specific residential lot at 207 Sunny Lane that had been excavated and cleared from lot line to lot line.

Two of the three homeowners spoke of their experiences undertaking modest renovations to their homes, both of which were contained within the original footprints of the houses. Both spoke of a rigorous variance process, involving inspections, notice to neighbours, consultation with neighbours, new drawings, and variance committee meetings.

“It is frankly astounding to witness, in contrast, the permission of the demolition of a hillside … and to witness the construction of a vast home built from lot boundary to lot boundary, irreversibly altering the landscape and utterly destroying the native vegetation and topography of the lot. Quite possibly altering the stability of the hillside,” said Craig Bosenberg, who lives on Sunset Avenue.

The owner of the lot, Andre Besenyo, said he is doing everything according to proper procedure.

“The neighbours complain to city hall. Then city hall sends the inspectors out,” said Besenyo. “The inspectors get here and just shake their head and walk away again because there is nothing we have done that hasn’t been according to permit.”

Deborah Jensen, acting director of Building and Planning for Oak Bay, helped to explain the apparent discrepency. She said in terms of council involvement, council approval is not required for a building permit.

“For an existing single family lot, unless the owner has made an application for a development variance permit, there would be no notification to the surrounding neighbourhood. That notification is specifically through the variance permit process,” said Jensen. “No variances were applied for, nor required, for the house construction at 207 Sunny Lane.”

A point of major concern for the neighbours is on the west side of the property where Besenyo excavated a cliffside back to the lot line in order to build his house foundation at the edge of the required setback.

Neighbour Marion Cumming warned Besenyo about her past experience with the instability of this particular rocky hill.

“I mentioned that the rock in the cliffs can fragment into boulders and invited him to visit the garden here to see rocks that have peeled off the cliff,” said Cumming. “The municipality accepted responsibility for the rock that slammed into the house between Mr. Besenyo’s place and mine when previous owners lived there. The municipality spent weeks removing other rocks and drilling into the cliff with pin rods that hold strong mesh to stabilize that section of cliff. I told Mr. Besenyo a former geologist neighbour advised my husband and me to retain trees and vegetation as a buffer.”

Dr. Chris Yorath, retired geologist and author of The Geology of Southern Vancouver Island, visited the site after the excavation work was complete, but prior to the start of construction. He had concerns about a fault line that became visible after excavation and stated that in earthquake country, cliffs should not be made steeper, especially where the rock is soft. He said the cliff showed two different types of rock, Wark and Colquitz gneiss on the top and the softer Leech River formation rock below. The fault line where they join is inherently unstable and could be a problem in a significant earthquake.

“In my opinion, the recently exposed cliffside with its newly revealed horizontal faultline destabilizes the adjacent property and ought to be taken seriously,” said Yorath.

Besenyo does not see a need for concern as he feels an appropriate wall is being constructed, he has consulted a geotechnical engineer, and has received the necessary approvals from the municipality.

“The geotech engineer is responsible for reporting to Oak Bay for what issues could arise. He’s the one who tells me, you have to do this, you have to do this,” said Besenyo. “Then he puts a stamp on it and then everyone is in the clear. Everything that’s being done is according to what I am supposed to do.”

On the west side of the property where they hoe rammed within the 10 foot setback, Besenyo said the structural engineer made them drill 9 feet into the ground with 2 inch rebar. The geotech engineer made them add two long and tall 25 foot butresses, “walls that go the opposite way of the foundation wall so that if anything ever did slip it would all be contained by that,” according to Besenyo.

“Now we are in the process of filling that all up at the side of the house with about 100 yards of crushed rock to fill in all those spaces so that mountain is always going to be stable,” said Besenyo. “That’s the misconception that people are having. They think we are doing all these horrible, terrible things, but we couldn’t get away with that anyway, even if we wanted to.”

Bosenberg cites the guidelines in the Official Community Plan with respect to how these sorts of new developments should proceed. Within the document, are guidelines which support the conservation of the neighbourhood character and promote the conservation of the existing topology, vegetation and rock outcrops with limiting of blasting, excavation and backfilling.

“When developments that materially alter the topography and character of a neighbourhood are planned, I would ask that, at a minimum, the neighbours are canvassed for their opinions and are given the chance to present arguments against new developments which require significant blasting and excavation, and which materially alter the character of community,” said Bosenberg.

“It does not make sense that neighbours on King George Terrace and Sunny Lane who plan modest upper storey additions that keep to the footprint of their houses require approval from council and must consult with their neighbours, while it is allowed to hollow out an unstable cliff to enlarge the footprint of a new house and max out the lot,” said Cumming.

Besenyo sees it from a numbers perspective.

“We paid a fortune for the lot so it makes no sense to put a small house there. We have to put a house there that is substantial,” said Besenyo.

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Excavation on a residential lot in Oak Bay has neighbours concerned about the stability of the hillside.

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