Cumberland’s council has to consider variances for some retaining walls that are too high on Bolton Street. Photo by Mike Chouinard

Cumberland’s council has to consider variances for some retaining walls that are too high on Bolton Street. Photo by Mike Chouinard

Cumberland council considers retaining wall height dilemma

The variance requests on maximum height will go to advisory planning commission

Cumberland council is having to consider how high is too high for retaining walls.

The issue before them at a meeting on Sept. 7 was three requests for variance permits for three properties on Bolton Street in Coal Valley Estates.

These are following a request for an adjacent property on the street back in June. The issue is the height of the retaining walls for the properties at 3388, 3392 and 3396 Bolton St. The maximum allowable height of 1.2 metres needs to be increased.

“Variance permits have been applied for for all four properties,” planner Meleana Searle told council.

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A major issue is that an existing retaining wall is higher than permitted by the zoning bylaw, meaning either a variance must be granted or the wall height must be reduced. For a rear wall, the height is 1.5 metres and the side is 1.9 metres.

For council, the situation posed a dilemma. Coun. Gwyn Sproule said she had gone to look at the properties and wanted to know how the problem arose in the first place.

“This has been mind-bending,” she said. “I just don’t know how we got to this…. People have built on hillsides before.”

Coun. Vickey Brown raised similar points and had questions about how excavation work during an earlier phase might have led to the current situation.

Searle said the work predated her tenure with the village but pointed out excavation from a previous phase to level backyards on a slope, which left behind a mass of extracted material. The builders then left it to the later phase to consider retaining walls on what are higher lots.

“Variances are required for each wall,” she said.

Courtney Simpson, manager of development services, said the village is making some changes to avoid this kind of situation in the future, including amending its building permit application form. This will require a grading plan for lots to show retaining walls and any that would need a variance.

“That’ll be identified right away,” she said.

Simpson said they will not need to change any bylaws to do this but simply put this process into practice.

“There’s the opportunity to go through that variance process before anything is built and to redesign a home, if that’s what’s needed,” she said.

Coun. Jesse Ketler asked about the responsibility of the developer versus the final property owner. She also pointed out there is an aesthetic issue with the walls for the neighbours below. The staff report notes the issue would come from a side wall not the rear walls.

She also asked what the repercussions would be for not approving the variance, such as whether the landowners of the retaining walls have to remove them or do a terraced landscape. Searle said if denied, the applicant would be limited to the 1.2m maximum and likely address the matter through terracing.

“I’m not sure there’s any right answer here,” Ketler responded.

Council passed motions to refer the variance requests for the properties to the advisory planning commission (APC).

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