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‘Monster homes’ spark spirited debate in West Vancouver

Huge “monster houses” can block views, destroy landscaping and become architectural pariahs in established neighbourhoods used to a certain look.
Some Metro Vancouver residents say "monster homes" harm the character of neighbourhoods, while others say landowners should be able to build what they want within zoning rules.

Huge “monster houses” can block views, destroy landscaping and become architectural pariahs in established neighbourhoods used to a certain look.

But West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith said the biggest homes aren’t always the worst offenders in clashing with community values.

“Unfortunately you can’t always legislate taste,” he said. “Some large homes can fit beautifully into a neighbourhood where other smaller homes can be completely out of character. That’s the frustrating and hard part to deal with.”

His comments Monday came as West Vancouver considers measures to reduce the size of massive new homes that are rubbing some residents the wrong way, including a new 17,500-square-foot home being built in the Caulfeild neighbourhood.

But Monday night, West Vancouver residents packed the council chamber and spilled into the foyer at a lively special meeting on the controversial topic. Most panned further restrictions on home size.

“At first glance, this is flawed, to say the least,” said Russell Lane, who said he and his wife were “one of the owners of one of the larger properties and our house is on it. It’s not a ‘monster property,’ or whatever the description is, but a house that was built appropriate to current regulations.”

He said it would be unfortunate if the municipal government created, in effect, two classes of properties, where older houses that were built to code would be more attractive to buyers than homes built after a policy change.

“This is going to be a rocky road for council to go down. I’ll leave that thought with you,” he said.

One West Vancouver proposal would restrict new homes to being just 50 per cent larger than the size of the house on the smallest lot in the same neighbourhood.

Robert Butler, who has lived in West Vancouver for about five decades, said he and his wife heard about what was on the table Sunday and were “absolutely mortified.”

He said he had no RRSPs, a large mortgage and a piece of property that he estimated would plummet in value should council take action on the issue.

“We definitely would need to sell and leave immediately,” said Butler.

Ambleside resident Dina Nezami said more information was needed and all residents should have a chance to put in their say.

She said it was important to protect natural, mountainous areas in West Vancouver, not put in a policy change that would harm middle-class family residential homeowners.

“As a resident of West Vancouver, I’m against this proposed bylaw as it seems to be unfair and affect everyone unequally,” she said.

Many speakers said West Vancouver is a unique district, and one where policies similar to those of nearby municipalities may not work.

Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association chief executive Bob de Wit said earlier Monday there has to be a balance between individual property rights and the common rights of the community.

“You don’t want to disrupt the character of a community by building monster houses in the midst of tiny houses on small lots,” he said. “But at the same time, you have to respect the rights of the people who own the land.”

De Wit said most Metro Vancouver communities do what they can to prevent the sizes of certain homes from getting out of hand, noting many cities double the floor space counted in rooms with exceptionally high ceilings.

He said a 600-square-foot living area with a 14-foot ceiling would count as 1,200 square feet of floor space.

“That tends to restrain the size of the houses that can be built on given lots,” de Wit said.

De Wit said there’s a strong demand for very large homes in certain areas -- especially when more than one family wants to live under the same roof -- but feels the long term trend is for greater densification of residential land, not less.

“Cities are trying to enable density in different forms, so it’s more about building laneway homes and carriage homes and legal suites than it is about building gigantic single-family homes,” he said.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said her community limited the size of new North Delta homes to 3,552 square feet several years ago and feels the policy has worked well, with few complaints from builders or owners of would-be monster homes.

“We were having problems with some very large homes being built, some as large as 9,000 square feet or bigger,” she said. “Allowing an unlimited amount of square feet in new homes was not taking the community in the direction it wanted to go.”