A neighbourhood fights back

One woman's battle to preserve an Oakville small-home feeling

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATALIA CAMARENA

In 2015, Money Sense ranked the Town of Oakville as one of Canada’s Top 10 places to live. The article said Oakville had healthy growth, high incomes, and low crime rates. But one of things it didn’t have was affordable housing.

Right now many neighbourhoods in Oakville are going through transitions. Many of the older houses are being sold, bought by builders, torn down and then ”monster homes” are built in their place.

This is called massing.

While massing is a widespread issue all over town, in one neighbourhood in particular it has become a growing concern. Near Fourth Line and Rebecca Street, houses are being flipped at an unprecedented rate.

According to the Town of Oakville’s zoning bylaw 2014-014 in zone Z03, where this neighbourhood is located, the residential floor area can be a maximum of 41 per cent of the size of the lot. But increasingly, builders are applying for variances after the initial plans have been approved, allowing them to increase the size of the houses even more. Some houses that were torn down were only about 20 per cent of the lot.

In July the owner of 472 Jeanette Dr., Chelsea Miller, submitted an application to get approval for a variance, which would increase the permitted size of the house to 46.3 per cent of the lot.

After watching massive houses being built one after another and seeing variance after variance approved, Linda Morgan decided she’d seen enough of it.

Standing in front of the new house under construction is Linda Morgan.

Standing in front of the new house under construction is Linda Morgan.

Morgan then spent the next several months working to fight the approval of the variance. This included attending hearings, hiring an urban planner, rigorously examining city bylaws and gathering support from her fellow neighbours.

On Jan. 12, at a hearing at Oakville’s Town Hall, Morgan fought the application for the variance and won. Along with Morgan, four neighbours testified, as well as the urban planner she had hired, a town solicitor and the town’s expert witnesses. Along with the witnesses Morgan had organized a petition and gathered the signatures of 45 neighbours supporting her cause.

One of the neighbours, Frank Seviour, owns the property next door to the new house.

“I’ve lived at this house for 20 years. I had looked around for a while, but I loved the old English cottage look, and the beautiful trees,” said Seviour in his testimony. “The neighbourhood has been taken over by monster homes. They’re massive and they impact everyone.”

In fact the house in question, has affected Seviour and his wife quite a bit.

Linda Morgan is standing in front of neighbour Frank Seviour's home. The new dwelling is towering above his home.

Linda Morgan is standing in front of neighbour Frank Seviour’s home. The new dwelling is towering above his home.

“Prior to the construction, the sun would come down and filter through the trees, it was just gorgeous. But that’s all gone now,” said Seviour. “There’s one sheer mass beside us, and no sunlight. Our backyard has been trashed, we’ve lost privacy I mean it’s just been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. Many of the builders coming in aren’t taking the neighbours and the character of the neighbourhood into consideration. For the builders these properties are simply investments.

Another neighbour Mike Sanci explored the deeper issues of massing in his testimony.

“I moved here because I really liked the ambiance, it’s cottage-like, the canopy, and the warm and inviting community. Now these houses are being bought by developers, the trees are being torn down and the canopy is gone,” said Sanci. “Developers come in here and they don’t live here, they just want to maximize their investments.”

While change is inevitable, the transitioning in these neighbourhoods leaves many of these homes simply unaffordable to the middle and lower class. Many of the people in the neighbourhood bought their homes many years ago, and while selling would make them quite the profit, living in the same community would be unaffordable.

“The people that are moving in are of a certain class, and there’s that loss of warmth amongst the community. No one I know can walk in and spend $800,000 to $900,000 on a house,” said Sanci.

At this point in the hearing Morgan turned to Sanci and asked, “If you’re so unhappy here why don’t you just move?”

Without hesitation Sanci made a gesture to the back of the boardroom towards his neighbours. “Because of them,” Sanci said. “I don’t want to move, my friends and family are here. Where would I go?”

Along with Seviour and Sanci, two other neighbours, hired urban planner Alan Ramsay, testified. Following them, assistant town solicitor Dennis Perlin called two more witnesses, another urban planner Kate Mihaljevic and bylaw officer Darren Berry.

Mihaljevic advised that chairman Richard Jones, not give approval to the variance, as the design was not sensitive to the character of the neighbourhood.

“The variance requested doesn’t meet the intent of zoning bylaw and does not comply with the original plan,” said Mihaljevic. “Should the variance be approved, it would have a negative impact on the character.”

The only person in attendance on behalf of the Millers was the real estate agent Kirsten Leggat. The builder, who is also Leggat’s husband, was also present for a short period of time.

Leggat in her closing statement, prepared briefly over the course of the hearing, spoke about the Millers’ concerns.

“We were not aware that there was architectural control in the neighbourhood. In the Millers’ eyes, they saw the new dormer as architectural balance,” said Leggat. “There was no intent to upset the neighbours and it’s unfortunate that the neighbours don’t agree. It’s the same space basically. . . We request Mr. Chairman that you approve the variance.”

However when Perlin asked Leggat if the Millers had tried to speak with neighbours, if they attended the first meeting and if they were present at this hearing, she replied “no”.

What may seem like a trivial issue is merely the tip of the iceberg. It’s becoming more prevalent in Oakville, in this neighbourhood in particular. More developers are applying for variances, the houses are getting bigger and trees are needlessly being torn down.

Limitations are not being strictly enforced, and fighting back requires many man-hours, time off work and money to hire experts.

Many homeowners are losing their privacy. They’re constantly surrounded by construction and dirt, they’re losing the character of their neighbourhoods and they’re losing their communities.

The new house built is so high compared to other dwellings in the neighbourhood, that privacy in their backyards is now gone. This picture was taking from the back deck of one of the neighbours that resides behind the Millers' new home.

The new house built is so high compared to other dwellings in the neighbourhood, that privacy in their backyards is now gone. This picture was taking from the back deck of one of the neighbours that resides behind the Millers’ new home.

For Morgan and her neighbours, this is just the beginning. In fact they already have their eyes set on stopping another variance getting approved.

“We have to take control of what’s going on in our neighbourhood,” said Morgan. “It’s a very long and tedious process, but this is just the beginning.”

Below is a map outlining Morgan’s neighbourhood and the house being constructed:

23 Responses to A neighbourhood fights back

  1. Smith July 22, 2016 at

    I live in this community, there are a couple points i would like to make. First point is that in the Kerr west area there a very few nice trees that are removed when a new house is built. Many trees in the area where planted in the 50s and are envasive (norway maple) too big for a normal lot Blue Spruce. Or dead Ash, and extremely ugly 50 year old half dead birches. Drive around East oakville and see the difference. East oakville has better trees, better landscapes. It is crazy that the town is wasting tax dollars defending poor landscaping and bad tree placements. Also 95% of the old, original houses in Kerr west area are garbage. They are damp, mouldy, uninsulated, few if any systems in the houses would even come close to passing electical or ventilation codes. A 2500-3000 square foot house is only a monster home in maybe Africa. A 2 storey house on 40% lot coverage is not heartbreaking. What is heartbreaking is people that think they should be able to control other peoples property. Sad.

  2. Jaret May 2, 2016 at

    The builders making these home have no vested interest in the community. Those home owners that build new homes for themselves create very nice homes that suit their needs and increase the beauty of the community.

    The builder beside me on southview is building a big box. Interestingly enough, these big box homes seem to sit on the market for 1-2 years before selling. They generally are not very pretty buy hey, I assume someone will want a home that’s all house and no yard.

    I’ve have two large Oak trees in my back yard (100-150) years old each )The builder next door is allowed to remove 30% of the canopy ( Per Michelle D. From city of Oakville ). Not that I have a problem with that, but I am concerned for the general health of the trees as should one die, I’d be likely be responsible for the cost associated with its removal. No easy task for a tree so large.

  3. MK February 19, 2016 at

    These are not monster homes, they are 2 storey homes and in most cases are fully within the by-law. Any variances are always minor in nature and approved as per the Committee of Adjustment process facilitated by the town of Oakville. Committee meetings are a costly exercise for applicants and the integrity associated with their decisions is a fundamental value to ensure pragmatic and equitable adjudication of all applications presented before them.

    Neighborhood residents are welcome to share their concerns and follow the process and should they have concerns with the Committee’s process then address that directly to their counsellors, but attacking already approved decisions is unfair to the applicants.

  4. Warren January 23, 2016 at

    First, the committee of adjustments that decides all of this is bound by the Ontario Planning Act and to a secondary extent the Oakville Liveable Plan. They look at 4 key criteria. Most of the Councillors on Town Council were at some point members of the various ratepayer’s association so its naive to think your councillor (new or to be elected) can help you — the reality is this committee is independent and makes the decisions — your Councillor cannot help you….its all about intensification and extracting as much taxpayers dollars by creating new and bigger homes…the town decides if they think its worth fighting or appealing to the OMB…

  5. Joe January 22, 2016 at

    Hi All. I have lived in this neighbourhood for the last 50 years. Born in Oakville. When is the building and engineering departments going to look at the water problem. I mean, basements two feet into the underground watertable. Why do they need 12 foot ceilings? Why are the ditches have standing water, mosquitoes, etc. Drainage under basement floors going to the sanitary sewer? I see it as a money grab, more taxes.

  6. Fay Copland January 22, 2016 at

    Why has it become so easy to be granted a variance now? More tax money for the town? Disgusting!

  7. Rob Lamberti January 22, 2016 at

    It’s disheartening to know that there have been many trees that have been cut down for this. The town issues however many permits required to clear a space for a massive house and equipment; it appears to be a cash grab. One reason I moved into my home was the “greenness” of the neighbourhood. That diminishes every time a new building permit is issued.

  8. Tim Hyde January 21, 2016 at

    This has been going on in the Chartwell-Maplegrove area for some time. The character of entire neighborhoods has changed. I have three things to add. When an $800K bungalow is replaced by a $3M dollar home the Town/Region earn more revenue from that property (and the appreciation in neighbouring properties) without any associated incremental expense. Our private tree protection by-law is anemic compared to Toronto’s. Finally our height by-law is a static 9M which invites mansard style roofs on 9M high boxes. At the CMGRA we suggested the new height by-law encourage variety in design. We did not hear back.

  9. Christine Thompson January 21, 2016 at

    I don’t live there, but what Linda has done for her neighbourhood is nothing short of heroic!

    She is not a big-shot corporate lawyer, nor a politician. She is simply wholeheartedly attached to her neighbourhood, its culture and people. And is willing to FIGHT for it.

    I applaud her efforts, her win, and her complete devotion to protecting the very essence of what makes Oakville, Oakville.

    My friend and my hero! Go Linda!!!

  10. Adorable Acton January 20, 2016 at

    Move to Acton! Lots of smaller, affordable, lovely homes with gorgeous yards, still at affordable prices…really check it out, it’s worth the drive! I should know, grew up in Oakville and now live in Acton…

  11. Alanna January 20, 2016 at

    I am also a victim of this “massing” as I live in the same neighborhood and have watched my new neighbor for the past 18 months construct one of these monster homes right beside me. The back half of my 1300 sq ft house faces the side of this new house that appears to be well over 3000 sq ft. I have lost all the beautiful sunlight that used to come through my house, I have lost total privacy with this house looming over mine, long side windows peering directly into my kitchen, my bathroom, my dining area, and of course, I have lost the use of my back yard and my pool. Just living beside this ongoing renovation (I repeat, already 18 months in the process and still not complete!) prevented me from wanting to do any sort of backyard entertaining this last summer. I am now in the process of looking for a new place to live. Nobody should EVER have to be forced out of their house but that is exactly what is happening in this neighborhood. It’s a real shame.

    ps. Jackson, I DO work hard and I happen to earn an extremely good living. That doesn’t mean I want to live in a monster home. If that’s what I was looking for, I would have settled in Glen Abbey where that type of postage stamp lifestyle already exists. Very arrogant comments on your part Jackson. FYI, money isn’t everything. I hope for your sake you never have to learn that life lesson the hard way!!!

  12. Hart Jansson January 20, 2016 at

    Bravo Linda for fighting this fight. I have been representing Ward 2 residents with these issues for over 12 years, and have been at Committee of Adjustment many times (in addition to Planning and Development Committee and Town Council itself). I am eager to use my experience as the next Ward 2 Town Councilor. For anyone facing these problems, I have some battle scars and experience that would be helpful. Please also note that at the Planning and Development Committee meeting on Monday night, the Official Plan Review Sub-Committee was formed. (see my recent Facebook post also). It includes the regional councillors – O’Meara, Duddeck, Gittings, Elgar, Knoll, Adams and Mayor Burton. This OP review is highly important for future development issues and the likelihood of OMB-decided cases. I will participate to the maximum degree possible to ensure that OMB developer victories like 174 Brookfield Road will not be repeated! Let me help make #aStrongerWard2.

  13. Old neighbour at 476 Jeanette Dt January 20, 2016 at

    Glad my parents aren’t alive to see their home of 30+ years torn up like this. Sadly this is happening in all older parts of all cities in Ontario

    Hey Jackson. You are so wrong. And it’s they’re not their. Hard to take you seriously when your grammar is so poor.

    Residence who have made these neighbourhoods their homes for 30, 40+ years have a right to be protected from being invaded by people like you They are not jealous, you idiot, they want privacy and sunlight and their home they have loved all these years. At the time they purchased their home, it was a big purchase. Mortgage rates were high. People worked hard to pay them off and raise their families. Don’t insult them by saying they are jealous of your massive home. Many did upgrade the inside , put on additions. But they did it respectfully, and maintained the integrity of the neighbourhood. That’s the problem. Lack of respect for what is already there. A nice little community being destroyed by greedy show offs. They want what others have already worked hard to get. So who is the jealous one here?

  14. Jackson January 19, 2016 at

    Here’s the thing it’s not fair to complain about someone wanting to build a house with their own money, when that new house doesn’t affect you! In this case sure it does, so fine fight it. But there’s plenty of people in this neighbourhood fighting variances just because their jealous that they can’t live in houses like that and are worried that the neighbourhood will be filled with people that are a whole lot wealthier than them! That’s just a part of living in Oakville! If you have a problem with someone building a nicer house than yours, grow up! Work harder and make more money

    • Oakvillian January 19, 2016 at

      Don’t be dick.

      These ‘houses’ are as ugly as they are crappy. Built cheaply and designed poorly.

      The name of the game with developers is to pack as many people (or rooms in this case) in as small a space as possible. The only impact they’re concerned about is the ROI.

      Flipping houses might have been a neat way to make money 20 years ago but now that it’s a “business”, the maximum profit mentality is leaving untold wreckage in it’s wake. Namely, artificially driving up property value for no other reason than the flipper getting a decent ROI so he and his crew can make enough money before moving onto the next home.

  15. David Marshall January 19, 2016 at

    This is an interesting article. The first home I purchased was in West Oakville and I love the area for some of the reasons mentioned in this article. My family and I moved out of the area to a bigger home about 5 years ago. I’m still shocked on a weekly basis about the development in West Oakville and I sell real estate as my profession. My personal opinion, this is driven by money and every developer pushes the limits with very little or no consideration for the area and the surrounding people. About 10 years ago the builders concentrated in East Oakville moved into the Coronation Park area for cheaper lots and now into West Oakville. Until one of these homes is built right in your backyard I don’t think you really realize the impact it can have on your life and the enjoyment of your property. I feel for Mr Seviour and some of the other owners that are being impacted by these changes. Very difficult to stop but these variances can get out of control if gone unchecked. I’m watching…

  16. Mike Labencki January 19, 2016 at

    Another area that is being devoured by the “Ego” homes is the old Sunningdale area. Built in the early 50s these homes were built on large lots by today’s standards. The smaller three bedroom bungalows are being replaced by property line, to property line houses that really don’t fit the neighbourhood.

  17. Mary D. Smith January 19, 2016 at

    Transitional neighbourhoods are being threatened ‘en masse’ in Oakville; another case in point is the ‘million dollar’ development bordered by Rebecca St, Dorval and Mary St. Here, all vegetation was leveled and any separation between residences invites a handshake between houses. A total loss of privacy in the neighbourhood. I have friends, acquaintances and family living in the area and thank the neighbours who have stepped forward to challenge the destruction of our lovely residential areas.

    • Natalia January 19, 2016 at

      It is true, massing is a pressing issue all over Oakville. I hope to tackle more in coming articles.

      Thank you for your comment.

  18. Chris Kowalchuk January 19, 2016 at

    This is why I am running for Ward 2 Councillor in Oakville,
    Thank you Linda Morgan, you have a friend in me.
    Please call me, thanks. Chris Kowalchuk

    • Natalia January 19, 2016 at

      Thank you so much for your comment, I have been forwarded your information and I will be in touch soon.

  19. Thomas Petrowitz January 19, 2016 at

    Great article. Sadly, this is becoming the rule rather than the exception. The “monster house” status symbol sense of entitlement has even reached our tiny village on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Approvals for zoning variances will continue unabated unless people such as yourselves stand up and are counted. Well done! Keep at it. We are noticing developers and property owners here beginning to think a little differently, only after years of doing exactly what you are doing. Our District Council cringes when one or more of our number attend meetings where an unreasonable zoning variance application is on the agenda. We can take nothing for granted. You give us hope. Thank you.

    • Natalia January 19, 2016 at

      Thank you so much for your comment. It really is heartbreaking watching the “monster houses” take over quaint little neighbourhoods. Should this trend continue, there will no longer be these lovely little communities.

      I’m glad to hear that your community is standing up as well.