By KERRY GOLD
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Eagle Island is so close to West Vancouver that it barely registers as an island.
After what must have been a 20second boat ride on a small barge, I found myself standing on arguably the most scenic spot in the Lower Mainland - all glistening ocean and forested pathways that curve around houses with lush gardens.
But it's not the serene escape from city life that it appears, resident Stephanie La Porta says.
"My friends have renamed it Evil Island," she says, as she leads me to her house.
There are only 32 properties on Eagle Island and it could easily join the mainland if someone were to install a pedestrian bridge. But it is only accessible by boat, and the residents prefer to keep it that way. It means each resident has a boat, or barge, at the publicly owned docks. It also means parking off island, with one space allotted per household and some overflow parking. Parking is a big issue for the island community, which would have a lousy walkability score.
Ms. La Porta and husband Chris Poulter have lived on Eagle Island for eight years, and have spent the last two years engaged in an extremely heated and exhausting battle with their island neighbours. Ms. La Porta says she's lost countless nights of sleep over the ordeal, which, she says, has made enemies out of islanders they once considered friends. It's an uncomfortable situation, especially when you're contained in a tiny space, sharing a narrow dock and footpaths.
"Everything was great until we decided we were going to build the coach house," she says, seated at her dining room table. Beyond the French doors, there is a private rocky point that juts out, and beyond that, miles of ocean.
After they announced plans for a coach house, she says neighbours she used to have over for dinners and parties stopped speaking to them.
"We had all socialized. And then we heard from other people that they were starting an anti-coach house petition. People I had over for parties went behind our backs and did that.
Nobody came to us and spoke to us about it. That was the hardest part for me, was the stabbing-in-the-back part. It was all done behind our backs. It was so ugly."
It's been a daily stress, adds Mr. Poulter.
"We are surrounded," he says. "I wouldn't mind, honestly, if we could get what we wanted [for the house] and go somewhere else."
It's affected their relationship and their family, says Ms. La Porta.
"This is personal. Anybody else would have gone nuts by now, but we are very strong."
At issue is the couple's proposal for a 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom coach house on their one-acre property at 5826 Eagle Island. Their Cape Cod-style house was built as a cottage in 1930 and it needs work. The roof is a thick blanket of moss, the ceiling inside has been patched up and the bathrooms and kitchen need major updating. Ms. La Porta and Mr. Poulter had planned on building the coach house on a former tennis court that had been installed by the previous owner. It could easily double as a foundation. But it was too big, so Mr. Poulter spent six months removing half of it with a jackhammer.
They planned on living in the coach house while they renovated the 3,800-square-foot main house.
After the renovation, one of their four adult sons, who live off-island, would live in the coach house, Ms. La Porta says.
But although West Vancouver allows coach houses, Eagle Island does not. Site-specific rezoning and a development permit are necessary to build a coach house on Eagle Island, which means a public hearing and council approval. After district council gave the proposed bylaw change a first reading, a public hearing was scheduled for the beginning of November. But the couple withdrew their application because they felt they were not going to get council support because of intense opposition from residents. They say they felt outnumbered by people who live on and off the island who opposed it.
It was the second time they'd applied. The first time it didn't even make it to first reading because of public outcry.
Both times they applied for the rezoning, they were supported by district-planning staff.
"The coach house was fine," says Jim Bailey, director of planning and development service. "We recognized significant neighbour concerns, but the coach house was a supportable form of development for that site.
"Is the infrastructure and capacity of the island limited? Absolutely. The question staff asked is, 'Does the coach house create a tipping point?' It doesn't, not in our opinion.
"The irony of this is they could build an accessory building roughly the same size of the coach house on that tennis court," he says.
If they chose, they could also build a house close to 20,000 square feet in size, which would very likely block views. The proposed coach house doesn't block anyone's views. The couple also offered to reduce the allowable floor ratio on their main house, and pay for added parking.
"We would have enough room for a hockey rink and a 10-car garage," Ms. La Porta says. "This whole thing is insane."
But judging from resident letters, the major issue is less about views and more about the threat of added density to the island - and how more people would impact the island overall, particularly in regard to parking and boat space. Mr. Bailey says his staff didn't see any issue with boat capacity.
He says the island could potentially handle two or three coach houses.
Rory Hinds, who's 43 and in the film industry, has lived for a year in a rental house on the island, with three roommates. They drive cars and in summer he says parking can get scarce. Boats can get crowded at the docks. But as a renter, he doesn't want to get involved in island politics, he says. He's just happy that he gets to live in the hidden paradise.
For the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, he shares a big house on the ocean.
Before he rented the house, he'd never heard of Eagle Island. But many people haven't.
"I didn't see a problem with the coach house, but [as a renter] I don't have a vested stake in the island," he says. "I think Vancouver needs more housing. But I don't know if the island needs more housing. It is unique."
The Eagle Island Residents Association declined to comment. But one member, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for the association, emphasized that residents favour coach houses in general. They just don't want them on Eagle Island, because they believe the island is at capacity. Of the 25 residents that belong to the association, 20 opposed the coach house. The remaining five didn't respond to a poll.
One letter to the mayor and council (in copies made available to the public the names were redacted) revealed the degree of contention over the proposal. The resident wrote: "The last 21/2 years of dealing with the 5826 [Eagle Island] coach house applications have been the most stressful, the most toxic and destructive community experience I have ever had."
The resident said the pressure of diverse housing would push the island past a tipping point.
John Owen and Terry Duncan, next-door neighbours to the proposed site, wrote me an e-mail that outlined concerns about parking, boat spaces, garbage and recycling, sewer and water supply and emergency access.
"Eagle Island, being a finite entity unlike the mainland, has very limited services," they wrote.
There were also concerned that the coach house would become an income suite, generating a possible $4,000 a month.
On the whole, coach houses have been slow to arrive tin tiny West Vancouver. While several Vancouverarea municipalities have embraced coach houses and laneway houses, West Vancouver has only had a handful since the district approved them four years ago. And getting to that approval was a long and heated issue for the municipality.
It's odd, because West Vancouver has some of the biggest lot sizes in the Lower Mainland. The average lot size is around 50- to 100-feet wide says developer Michael Geller, who is proposing cottage-type infill around an Ambleside heritage house in West Vancouver. The Rush House project at 1195 12th St. goes to a public hearing on Nov. 20. So far, he sees no signs of push back.
But when he built Hollyburn Mews in West Vancouver several years ago - which included West Vancouver's first coach houses - it was met with a similar degree of outrage as the Eagle Island case, he says.
"Even Jimmy Pattison wrote a letter of opposition. It was so widespread."
Today, the project is seen as a success story, he says. And people in West Vancouver are starting to see coach houses as useful housing for family members, as opposed to rentals, he says. But a major disincentive is that current zoning doesn't give residents any added density for a coach house. They can only work with the maximum allowable on their single-family property. The district is reviewing that policy.
"The population of West Vancouver has actually dropped, and it's because younger people are leaving.
And also older people are leaving too because there are so few affordable housing choices," Mr. Geller says.
"And I think the coach house could be a very viable way to keep people in the district."
Mr. Bailey says he used to be a planner for the city of Vancouver, and it's "a change" compared with working in West Vancouver.
"But generally, coach housing is becoming more and more accepted as a form of infill housing," he says.
"The story isn't necessarily about West Vancouver - it's about Eagle Island. It's a pretty unique spot."
Stephanie La Porta, right, and her husband, Chris Poulter, stand near their home on Eagle Island, West Vancouver. Ms. La Porta says after they announced plans to build a coach house, neighbours she used to have over for dinners and parties stopped speaking to her and her husband.
KERRY GOLD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL