A neighbourhood fights back

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


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:

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