One deck, two neighbours, 14 months of Winnipeg bureaucracy

North Point Douglas resident Matt Wiebe has found himself trapped in a circuitous battle with a vengeful neighbour and byzantine city hall bureaucracy over something as benign as a backyard deck.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/08/2019 (1309 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

North Point Douglas resident Matt Wiebe has found himself trapped in a circuitous battle with a vengeful neighbour and byzantine city hall bureaucracy over something as benign as a backyard deck.

If it wasn’t for the constant threat of a $1,000 fine — which he has paid once, appealed, and received a refund — Wiebe appears to have become a character in a tragic-comic play authored by a mash of Franz Kafka with the nonsensical gang from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“I’ve complied with everything they told me to do, and then I got hit with a $1,000 fine,” said Wiebe, 40. “I appealed and I won, but now I’m threatened with a fine again. They’re shifting the goal posts on me again… ‘It’s good, it’s not good; it’s good, it’s not good’… I’m incredibly frustrated.

“I’ve acted in good faith and they have not.”

“They” are City of Winnipeg bylaw inspectors and enforcement officers within the much-maligned planning, property and development department, urged along by neighbour Jason Dilha, who described himself to the Free Press as a motivating force in the process.

(Workplace abuses of city building inspectors uncovered by a series of stories published in the Free Press in April involved the commercial side of the department, not the residential inspectors dealing with Wiebe.)

Six years ago, Wiebe, a web developer who works from home, and his wife bought a two-storey home on Hallet Street, a half-block from the Red River. They renovated the 1884 home and five years ago built a backyard deck that wrapped around the side.

The problem: the yard sloped downward, from the rear to the front.

According to city bylaws, backyard decks constructed more than 24 inches off the ground need a permit, and decks higher than 24 inches are not allowed on side yards, even with a permit. The Wiebe’s deck complied in some areas of the property and not others.

A neighbour (Dilha) complained, prompting visits from residential building inspectors.

Dilha, 46, grew up on Hallet Street, in the home his mother bought when he was three, and where they both still live.

He said the deck allowed the Wiebe family to peer into their home through the windows on the side of his house. The deck has also attracted neighbourhood cats, Dilha said, and when combined with “leaves and other rotting organic matter” created a smell that prevents him from opening his basement windows.

Wiebe said the inspector appeared sympathetic, and suggested the problem could be resolved by landscaping the property and raising the grade. Which he did.

The rear deck is now 22 inches off the ground, but the side structure is still a little higher, at about 29 inches.

Wiebe said a series of building inspectors told him it was sufficient to comply with the bylaw. In the fall, however, he received a letter from the city’s bylaw enforcement division, informing him the deck was not compliant and levying a $1,050 fine for building without a permit.

Wiebe paid the fine, but appealed to an internal department committee, arguing he had complied with city suggestions to resolve the problems. The internal department committee eventually agreed and refunded the fine.

In the spring, a bylaw enforcement officer inspected the deck.

“I told him I would lower the deck or raise the grade even further, but he said it was good enough,” Wiebe said, adding he phoned the officer in late June and received a verbal agreement the structure was in compliance.

To further deal with concerns, Wiebe closed off the underside of the deck and hired a contractor to build a fence between the neighbouring properties to restore privacy Dilha said he had lost.

Last week, Wiebe received another letter from the city, saying the deck was no longer in compliance and he would need to acquire a permit — he has 20 days to apply for the document or face another $1,050 fine.

“Appreciating that the deck that you have constructed to the side and rear of your residence has undergone considerable attention from the development and inspections divisions of City of Winnipeg’s planning, property and development department, however, the deck remains problematic,” the letter signed by a bylaw enforcement officer states.

“Notwithstanding the good intention, work and the solutions that were utilized to bring the deck to a state of what was thought to be compliant, a further review, that included a recent inspection of the deck… has proven that there remain contraventions to the City of Winnipeg bylaws.”

Despite the letter’s focus, a civic spokesman told the Free Press the department’s concerns now focus on drainage.

“The current issue resides with the installation of the backfill, which affects the grading and not the deck construction,” the civic spokesman said in an email Tuesday, adding Wiebe now needs further approval from the water and waste department — something not mentioned in the recent letter.

Meanwhile, Dilha said he takes credit for the city’s pursuit, explaining he was disappointed civic officials gave Wiebe time to work on the deck, fined him but then gave him back his money.

Dilha said he contacted the department again recently, and demanded it take action against the Wiebes. And while the new fence has restored the privacy and added an extra measure of security to his property, Dilha said he doesn’t like it, explaining he now feels trapped in his backyard.

For his part, Wiebe said he no longer trusts anyone at city hall, adding given his experience the past 14 months he doesn’t know if any additional work would meet the satisfaction of any one official and wouldn’t be overturned by someone else.

Wiebe said he’s become so frustrated, he’s considering letting the city fine him again and taking the matter to court.

“The whole process has been full of bad faith on their part and just double-talk. It’s making me kind of crazy,” Wiebe said. “They’ve put such a chill on my desire to improve my property. It just makes me angry.”


Updated on Tuesday, August 27, 2019 7:57 PM CDT: Updates story.

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