Saanich is willing to bend the rules to stop a home on the heritage registry from being torn down by a Vancouver couple looking to build their dream house.
Peter Gosniak and Helen Lamla bought the property at 2700 Queenswood Dr. last month from Sheila and Byron Davies with the intent to tear down the 71-year-old structure on the grounds.
But Saanich staff in December denied the demolition permit, as did council last week, giving the municipality 60 days to come up with a solution or legal action could be taken.
“They were aware the home was heritage registered,” said Aurora Faulkner-Killam, with the law firm Cox, Taylor, legal counsel for the home owners. “But they investigated what that means and that heritage registration doesn’t entitle (local government) to indefinitely restrict an owner’s use.”
Faulkner-Killam read a statement to council last Monday stating the owners purchased the $2.4-million home with the intent to demolish it.
“The current intention remains to achieve a vacant lot,” Faulkner-Killam told council. “A vacant building is costly to insure.”
The 60-day heritage protection council approved buys council time to hopefully reach a compromise with the owners that keeps the existing house and achieves their eventual plan of building a new one.
But Faulkner-Killam says she spoke with her clients following the meeting and said their plans haven’t changed.
“They have no different expectations than what they set out with,” she said. “They’re prepared to listen to whatever Saanich council wishes to discuss, but they’ve been clear with their intentions.”
They say the home is “in poor condition,” riddled with asbestos and moisture issues, posing health risks.
Mayor Frank Leonard told Faulkner-Killam that council would be willing to make some pretty bold, one-off moves to accommodate the wishes of both parties.
“I even (offered suggestions) so far outside of existing zoning bylaws. In their correspondence, I seem to detect a tone that the property owner seems to think there’s some risk in applying for a rezoning or subdivision. One way to take the risk out is for us to be the applicant. Those are extraordinary suggestions for a mayor to make,” he said. “But that’s how open I am to start a dialogue in this 60-day window. I can’t telegraph a message any stronger to the property owner that I’m virtually wide open to a create a solution here.”
Among those suggestions, Leonard mentioned a customizable zone that allows for both houses on the property. “This could be the nicest guest house on Queenswood.”
If a compromise isn’t reached, council will be forced to decide whether a demolition permit is issued or it’s denied. If the latter is chosen, Faulkner-Killam says the couple will file a lawsuit seeking damages.
Leonard acknowledges that could become a costly route, and one for which Saanich taxpayers would have to foot the bill.
“When you’re protecting the public interest, not only the public interest in terms of property and heritage, but in terms of the treasury, we should act with eyes wide open,” he said. “I hope we’ll be able to share what the potential consequences are (to taxpayers) if we take that route.”
Last February, the City of Victoria was ordered to pay Rogers’ Chocolates nearly $600,000 after imposing a heritage designation on the downtown store’s interior against the owner’s will.
Leonard says council needs to look at that privately arbitrated decision when it chooses what direction it will take if no compromise is reached.
“Courts take people’s property rights quite seriously and government has a lot of power. But when you exercise that power upon one single property owner, the courts put a high price on that.”
Councillors Susan Brice and Wayne Hunter were absent but those in attendance unanimously approved the 60-day protection.
“This is the first time Saanich has played hardball,” Coun. Vicki Sanders said. “We’ve lost a lot of heritage over the years, but people weren’t aware. We were always in the mindset of ‘well, there’s always a lot more.’ … Allowing them to demolish this home, we will lose a whole part of Saanich history.”
When contacted by the **News, the Davies said they had no objections to the demolition of the home. The building was formerly owned by Sheila Davies’ parents and has been in the family since 1944.
The Davies added the home to the heritage registry in 2005 because it’s a “beautifully detailed and (well) preserved” representation of the British arts and crafts architectural movement.