Why does it always feel as if City Hall is in the business of doing nothing more than fining us, punishing us, and trying to squeeze us for every drop?
By Ben Bull
Published June 02, 2010
I've been thinking about a garage conversion. We're a family of six - four kids, two growed ups - all huddled together in a little downtown Toronto row house.
Our current TV room is six foot by ten, good for only three seasons and, given that our van is on its last legs and there's lots of street parking available, well - a garage conversion seems like a logical plan.
We're thinking: family room. Simple enough - right? Of course, I'll need a permit, I figured. You always do. These days it's as if the City always seems to want to stick their noses into your business, what with new garbage bins, fees, rules, a zillion bylaws for this and that, you pretty much assume that as soon as you see your kids draw hop-scotch on the sidewalk you better holler at them to stop and make a quick call to your Councillor.
But that's OK. I'll fill out a few forms, I thought, pay a small fee and keep a few bureaucrats in business. No problemo.
I scoured the City's website. Building extensions, loft conversions, parking permits, new constructions, hmm... garage conversions anybody?
So off I trudged to City Hall. As I strolled past the signs along the way:
'No parking from 2-7'
'No left turn between 5-7'
...I wondered, why exactly, if, in fact, I needed a permit.
All I was doing was hanging a bit of drywall and putting some laminate on the floor. I might put a closet in too, but surely that's OK, right? As my old Dad used to say: 'What could possibly go wrong?'
"I'm converting my garage," I announced to the building permit guy, as soon as my number was called. It was the same guy who'd been squinting at me from behind his desk as I'd sat whistling and chatting to people as they wandered by.
Why was he eying me like this? I'd wondered as I tried to avoid his gaze. Was I too cheerful? Were my Bermuda shorts and Honest Ed sandals not 'buildery' enough for his office?
Sure, I looked a little out of place amongst the plaster-splattered hard hatties with their kite-sized surveys blanketing their laps. But I was only here for a garage conversion - how legit did I have to look?
"Converting it to what?" replied Stink Eye, his sneer now chiseling its way up his face, his mouth hanging open in what seemed to me to be the very visual definition of the word gormless.
"A Family Room," I replied, pushing my hastily sketched almost-to-scale pencil and crayon renovation plans across the counter.
He fingered the drawings like a damp urine bottle, pulling his head back, as if their very appearance gave off a bad smell.
He emphasized the word 'this'. Not in a good way.
"The floor plan."
He sniffed, wafted his hand in front of his nose and waved over to his buddy. "Hey Mitch!"
The project particulars were duly reiterated, the plans gingerly fingered once again.
"This won't do," said Mitch, tutting and shaking his head.
"You'll need to fill out more forms."
"OK," I replied, anticipating a kerfuffle of some kind (really, at City Hall - it's a given isn't it?), "Just tell me what I have to do."
So they did.
"Fill out a Project Review Request form," they began.
"Draw up full floor plans for every level."
"Obtain a survey or get an architect to draw a site plan showing the set back, property lines and gradient of the renovated area..."
"And then...? And then what?"
I lifted my hands up and stared at my notes: One half page of barely legible smudged shorthand.
"And then you'll need to apply for a variance."
Mitch and Stink Eye cheerily explained how the City didn't want 20 people living in every house in Toronto which is why they had bylaws around usable living space in our homes.
"Why don't you want 20 people living in one house?" I asked, thinking that Toronto's problem was surely one of a lack of density, not abundance of it.
"It's a bylaw."
"And there's more," they continued.
"Yes. It may require a zoning change in which case it will have to go to Committee for approval."
I picked myself up off the floor.
"So what do I do after the variance is approved?" I rasped, stuffing the forms into my envelope and staring at a blotch on the wall.
"You submit an application to the Committee of Adjustments."
After picking myself up one more time I trudged off to the Committee of Adjustments counter. As I wandered over I thought back to a Two Ronnies, BBC comedy sketch from the '70s.
Ronnie Corbett is trying to buy a new stereo. "Do you want Woofers?" asks the pseudo-technical-less-than-helpful salesman.
"Yeah, you do. And you'll need a dingle dangle."
"A dingle what?"
"I'll give you two. And don't forget your tweakers."
"Half a dozen do ya?"
By the time the poor guy sloped out of the shop he had shopping cart full of bids and bods and no clue how to put them together.
The permit forms and instructions were now bulging out the top of my envelope - what else could I possibly need to do?
I stood in line and eavesdropped as a contrite looking Bay Street Bod nervously fiddled with his Blackberry.
"Erm, I have a, er, hypothetical question," he began, eying the grumpy looking Desk Clerk warily.
"Yes," replied Grumpy.
"Suppose, er, a friend of mine had been fined due to a, er...permit violation."
"Now...how might he appeal the fine?"
The grumpy clerk looked to the skies and scribbled something down on his pad.
"Is it you?" he snapped, pointing his pen into the man's face.
"No! No!" replied Bay Street Boy too quickly for comfort, "I'm just, er, doing some research."
After the suit scurried away I carefully laid out my predicament.
"What forms do you need me to complete?" I inquired.
As it transpired the Grumpy desk clerk was not so grumpy after all. He patiently outlined the four step COA application process that I'd need to go through, paying particular attention to the $747 fee I would need to incur, as well as the various site plan specifics I would need to re-submit.
"It's a long process," he concurred, as my head sank to the counter.
After pleading poverty, disease and every type of discrimination I could invent - 'doesn't this city want to help families?' I pleaded - the Not-So-Grumpy Desk Clerk placed his palms gently on the counter and replied, "No, not always."
Realizing that this project was no longer a go and that there was no one else in the line up, I asked the Clerk for his honest thoughts on the process.
Why was it necessary? Why did it always feel as if City Hall were in the business of doing nothing more than fining us, punishing us, and trying to squeeze us for every drop?
The Clerk sighed and told me there were two kinds of City workers: "Those who work for the public," he said, "And those who work for the city."
"Which one are you?"
"I work for the public," he stressed, "and yes, this process is stupid."
The Clerk then suggested that I might quietly convert the garage 'with the door closed,' and, if none of the neighbours complained, then, "What have you got to lose?"
It was the first good advice I'd received all day.
As I walked home past all the, 'No' signs - 'No stopping!', 'No idling!', 'No loading!' - I wondered why our bureaucracy always seems to get in our way. Isn't our government supposed to help people?
I turned onto my street and noted all the pokey little houses and their urban occupants: singles, newlyweds, nuclear 2.2-kid families...
Maybe it's time we moved to the suburbs.
I opened up my door and placed the envelope full of forms on the dining room table.
I headed down to the garage. The door was open.
I gently rolled it shut, and quietly got to work.
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