Denley: City of Ottawa bureaucracy can drive you through the roof


When a plan to build a garage on a home meets this much municipal red tape, you’ve got to wonder about how we run local government.

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Let me tell you a story about a man who is trying to build a garage. The story is important not because one garage matters that much, but because of what it tells us about how Ottawa City Hall operates.

Nepean businessman Mike Aubrey wants to add a garage to his property near the Merivale Mall, a seemingly straightforward project. The plan didn’t include a brick wall, until city building code services staff provided one.

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Aubrey’s house is a split-level that doesn’t offer much storage. He wants to remedy that by building a garage with attic space. Aubrey planned a mansard roof, a design that entails a roof on all four sides of the building. Each side of the roof is composed of two parts, a steeper lower part and an upper piece with a shallower pitch. That roof style maximizes attic space. The style of the roof is a critical point, because height is measured differently depending on the roof design.

Aubrey had been planning the project for 10 years and knew he’d have to jump through all the appropriate hoops. Before submitting his building permit application in May, he read the applicable building code and zoning regulations, and consulted with people in the planning department. He then designed the garage using computer-assisted design software, a technology he uses at work.

The first part of what would be a long email correspondence with city staff said that his four-sided, two-level roof was not a mansard because it had dormers. As Aubrey points out, the Parliament Buildings have a mansard roof with dormers.

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City staff then said the roof framing would have to be changed for the roof to be considered a mansard. Eager to move the plan along, Aubrey redesigned the roof to conform to the city’s demand for different framing, and he had the resulting plan stamped by a professional engineer.

City staff’s next gambit was to argue that the mansard roof was not a mansard roof at all. In July, Aubrey was informed “this design is not considered a mansard roof. It’s more of a gambrel or gable roof.”

Except that it’s clearly not. A gable roof is a two-sided roof that one typically sees on houses. A gambrel roof, what is sometimes called a barn roof, also has two sides.

The city staffer handling the file reached out to her colleagues, consulting four building plan examiners and a senior program manager. They all agreed that the mansard roof was not a mansard roof, a point repeated when I asked the city to justify its stance.

“Building Code Services interprets this specific roof structure to be of a similar impact to the neighbouring properties as a gambrel type roof. While the proposal is similar to a mansard at the lower roof surface, the upper roof surface is of a significant height and less typical of a mansard roof. As a result, the overall height of the building reaches approximately six metres high at its highest point, which exceeds the maximum building height as required under the zoning bylaw,”  Terri Hunt, manager of permit approvals, said in an emailed response.

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The use of the word “interpret” is interesting. The city’s regulations for building are precise and detailed, but in this case, staff are essentially arguing that if the garage roof were of a different design, it would be too high.

Finally, in August, Aubrey lowered the roof height, making it just 16 inches more than would be allowed if it were, in fact, the kind of roof city staff pretend it to be.

No dice. City staff suggested that Aubrey take his plan to the committee of adjustment and ask for a minor variance, a process that would take more time and money and push the project into next year.

It’s difficult to say how much time and energy city staff expended on the Great Aubrey Roof Controversy, but apparently proving you are in charge is priceless.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at [email protected]

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