Before the renovation could begin, we had to do what’s called a “site plan application”. Basically, if you are trying to do something that doesn’t conform with your site’s by-laws, say trying to build too close to the street or too high, you must amend your site plan. The steps we had already taken, included the design approval (you read about that last week). We also had to get an updated survey, grading plan and submit our final drawings.
Once the town was satisfied that we had what we needed (took almost 3 months for them to let us know), and we got the official letter stating that our application was ok to submit, we happily submitted our site plan application. It was mid-January.
At this point you should know that in 1971, the previous owner had built a 400 sf addition onto the main floor at the back of the house. That’s the photo from last week with the living/dining room. He had done so without a permit, and illegally because it’s too close to the property line. The north-west corner of it is actually about 3 feet from the property line. About 2 feet short of conforming with the “rules”. In some spots, even less.
The result of his negligence is that the upper addition would also be too close to the property line. We were told by the design committee, that if we tried to build the upper level narrower, they wouldn’t pass the design because they felt it wouldn’t look right. Basically all of the above forced us (in my opinion we were extorted into it) into submitting for a site variance. That means basically spending $5000 to apply and go through the town council for approval. Before that council meeting, they send a letter out to all the neighbours letting them know that they can attend the council meeting to express their concerns, and a big sign goes up on the front lawn. Our meeting was set for April 7th 2016. They told us that if all went well, we would have our final permit 2 to 3 weeks later.
For the 5 years we had already spent here, we had become great friends with our neighbours. Let’s call them Darla and Bob. They were a bit older with no kids and became a part of our family. We spent holidays together, the ice storm together as we survived days of black out, and our children loved them dearly. We had felt so lucky to have such amazing neighbours. When the kids were sick, they helped out. On weekends, we often had them for meals, and Darla and I became so close, that whenever one of us was grumpy, we’d sit at her kitchen table and spill it all out over wine. I showed her our plans, and we talked about how lucky I was to be building my dream home. She complained that she wanted to do the same, but Bob was not on board. I was charging ahead. She was at a stand-still. But she was happy for us. She loved us. We planned to grow old together.
It’s so sad.
Our council meeting was on Thursday, April 7th. The week prior, my husband decided that we should get a garbage bin, and start tearing up the upper level. It would take 3 weeks to prepare for construction, so we might as well get going. When the permit arrived, we’d be ready to go.
So the movers came and our stuff went into a storage unit. The bin arrived Friday and we spent the weekend completely gutting the upper level. It was amazing. This is me kicking in drywall. The excitement was incredible. We were finally starting.
Let me sidebar, and tell you that I would never start a renovation at a client’s house without a permit. I would never tear out one thing until the permit arrived. But it’s my house. And I didn’t care, at the time, about anything but progress. So, we risked it. Never believing that anything, or anyone would stop us.
**Please note that no structural work was being done prior to permit. We were removing drywall, and insulation, cabinets, etc. So, nothing risky going on. I’m obviously smarter than that. BUT DON’T YOU EVER DO THIS AT HOME.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were tossing the remaining garbage into the bin, Darla came out to chat.
Looking at her toes, Darla said: “I think I have a problem with your addition. It’s going to infringe on my privacy and block some sun.”
My heart pounded in my chest. We had just gutted our bedroom. We had our council meeting in 5 days.
“But you knew all about it. I showed you the plans. You’ve known for two years.” I started sweating.
“Well, until I got the letter from the town this week, I hadn’t realized how close you are to my property line.”
“Darla, I can’t change that. It was that way when you moved in. And I am not sure what you want me to say or do right now.”
“Well, according to the town’s letter, your property is too close to mine to start off with. I am just letting you know that Bob and I are going to go to the council meeting to discuss it.”
“Do what you need to do.” I walked away. I knew at that very moment that our friendship was over. All I could do was pray that she would come to her senses. That she wouldn’t ruin our friendship over this.
We spoke a couple more times that week. On Monday, she came over, and we talked about why I couldn’t make the upper level narrower. We talked about our neighbour selling her house for record-breaking numbers. Darla talked about moving. I thought maybe if they moved, they would leave us alone and maybe we could salvage our friendship.
On Wednesday, a for sale sign went up on her property.
On Thursday, she texted me, to see if I wanted a ride to the town council meeting. I didn’t go. I sent my architect. There was no way I could deal with Darla and Bob, if they truly planned to contest my application. I went to meet a client instead.
I got a call from my architect after the meeting.
“You were passed. But your neighbours put up a big fight. You have to wait twenty days now, to make sure they don’t take the matter further.”
“They did? Really?” I started crying. Twenty days. And then we had to wait for the letter to arrive, letting us know we were in the clear, and then we could submit our final application.
So we stopped. We didn’t do another thing in the house until our letter arrived. It took five weeks. FIVE WEEKS!
Meanwhile, I never saw or spoke to Darla and Bob again. They literally hid from us. They didn’t come outside when we were there, they never called us again. And one Sunday, there was a make-shift fence put up along the property line. See photo below. The bamboo and metal and garden signs make up the fence, along with a string…
It was a line in the sand, right? Was there any other way to take it? I was heartbroken. The kids were asking when they could see them. We just said they were busy packing. They had sold the house.
When the letter arrived May 19th. Now we it had to be submitted for a final approval through the planning department BEFORE I could submit for a building permit. Why do you ask? Why did it have to go through the entire department TWICE before I could get a final approval? Who knows? It feels like living in the twilight zone. The lady there told me it would take a week or two and we would be able to submit for our permit.
Ok, so we were close. And I was impatient. So, we started up again. We figured all was approved, just some formalities, let’s move it move it! Only an arrogant designer with contractors as buddies could ever do this. YOU should NEVER renovate without a permit. Like those ads where the cars are driving super fast around bendy, cliff-flanked, mountains. Those ads always have a disclaimer: “Do not try this at home. Professional driver used for this commercial.”
We packed up our main floor and moved into the basement. 250 sf of living space. I will put in a photo next week, after I clean up a bit. I mean it’s not pretty.
Then came one of the happiest days of my life. I got to remove the kitchen. Sorry, cell phone pic….texted back to me…bad quatlity
And then I went to work the next day, and the contractor called. The building inspector was there. Shutting us down.
In all of my 17 years working in this field, in all the renovations I have worked on, an inspector has NEVER shown up. NEVER, unless we booked them for a routine inspection.
And who, do you think called him?
So no work took place in our home until…we got the ok by the Planning Department May 30th.
We submitted for our Building Permit May 31st. They promised 2 weeks. They promised.
They aren’t very nice over there in the building permit department. It took a month, and lots of them being rude to me, and even more of me begging them to please talk to me. Walking into that department feels like walking into the police station to admit to some horrible crime. You are scared, intimidated and everyone is just rotten to you. No one seems to believe in customer service or respect.
We got the building permit June 30th.
But that permit in my hand was like winning the lottery.
I went home and made copies of it and taped it up to every window.
The majority of Darla’s windows, face my house. Her bedroom. Office. Dining. Living. I taped a copy of my permit to every window she could see.
And then I instructed the guys to get to work. And work hard they did.
Moral of the story? Don’t ever start anything without a permit. And as much as your neighbours love you, prepare for the worst. Oh, and on the sunny side of things, once you get your permit, the real fun starts!
Have a terrific week! And remember… #theresnoplacelikehome
Next week, the roof comes off and the flood pours in…