July 25, 2024

KT Business

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Property sale, threat of fine chases small business from North Saanich

5 min read

After setting up a move to North Saanich, Westcoast Container homes is being forced to move again

An innovative businessman tried to do the right thing in Greater Victoria, only to be met with misfortune and bureaucratic hurdles. Now, a much-needed business will be leaving North Saanich and moving into an uncertain future.

After 25 years in the construction industry, Adam Benning found himself increasingly concerned about the unfortunate realities of the home renovation industry. He was witnessing large amounts of waste consigned to landfills and ever-increasing resources going into the creation of large homes.

“People who needed a home office, or additional living space were faced with enormous costs to renovate or add to their homes and I knew there had to be a better way,” said Benning.

He started a business that would produce innovative solutions for people who were looking for a backyard office, a unique dwelling, a temporary spare room or a cost-effective, sustainable housing solution.

The idea was simple. His company, Westcoast Container homes, would use upcycled, and environmentally friendly, building materials to renovate the interior and exterior of shipping containers (seacans) that could then be used to augment existing structures.

“They’re basically a room that can be plugged in and can be used as an office space or an additional room,” said Benning. “It was more sustainable and had a lower impact on the environment at a cost that was more reasonable than most new construction.”

The start-up business operated in Chemainus for about three years and was doing reasonably well but was having trouble maintaining staff who primarily lived in Greater Victoria and had to travel significant distances to work.

“In the early spring, we found a spot on Mills Road (in North Saanich) that seemed perfect but it was not permanent and we knew that there was a chance we’d have to move at some point,” said Benning.

Nonetheless, the company pulled up stakes in Chemainus and, at a cost of about $25,000, moved their operation to North Saanich.

Then, out of the blue, the landlord decided to sell the land they’d moved to. The land was to go up for sale and Benning was informed that the company would have to move by November.

Undeterred, Benning began the search for another location.

But, within two days, he received yet another shock.

“I got an email from the planner in North Saanich with three bylaw violation notices that needed to be addressed,” said Benning. “The first two, regarding signage and setbacks, were easy to address.”

The third, however, was a killer for the fledgling business.

“We were told that we needed to have a permanent structure on the property to conduct our business and that our renovated seacans were not acceptable. It was in the foyer of the municipal hall where he told me that our units were considered a ‘nuisance’,” Benning said. “To hear him say that in front of a bunch of people was just offensive.”

Benning was ordered to vacate the property immediately or his firm would face fines of $500 a day.

He said the order to vacate was unreasonable as the firm had not yet secured a new location and, at any rate, they had several half-constructed units that couldn’t be moved in their existing state.

Regardless, negotiations with the municipal senior planner only resulted in a very short grace period for the move and, on June 17, Benning received an email advising the business that they were “now subject to bylaw enforcement.”

Benning responded, advising the municipality that they had found a new location but that they wouldn’t be able to move until at least July 1.

He wrote:” I am desperately asking for your compassion and leniency in our situation. We are doing everything in our power to comply with all requirements placed on us. Additional fines over the next week and a half, on top of this financially crippling (unforeseen) move, just 11 weeks after moving everything down from Chemainus, may actually force us to close the doors on this business…”

Benning had already written to Mayor Peter Jones and every member of council on May 30, explaining the company’s plight in detail and asking for help. (When the mayor was contacted by Black Press for comment on June 19, he said that he had only a passing familiarity of the situation and promised to look into it further.)

Hearing nothing back, on June 20, Black Press reached out to the communications staff of North Saanich with a request for information. We requested clarification on whether the mayor and council had received the May 30 emails from Benning.

On June 21, Benning received communication from North Saanich stating that they had halted enforcement proceedings and that no fines would be issued.

Black Press received a written statement form the District of North Saanich reading, in part: “The District has informed the applicant that bylaw enforcement will review the property again on July 2 to confirm if the move has occurred, or is underway, at which time fines may be issued. To date, the District has not issued any fines as we’ve attempted to achieve voluntary compliance.

“This approach has been well-received by the applicant, who has indicated appreciation for our response,” the statement also said.

Benning is doing his best to make the move happen by the assigned date, but the experience has left him shaken.

“This has been very stressful,” he said. “We’ve been driving around and have found a place for finished units in Sooke and another for production in Duncan, but this second move will be another $25,000.”

And while the promise to place a moratorium on fines by North Saanich has given the company some relief, it hasn’t been an easy experience.

“I haven’t had a proper sleep in weeks,” said Benning. “We’re a legitimate small business trying to find a solution for people who are suffering from the current housing crisis and these little pods can change people’s lives. The dream was to do that while getting to the point where we could set up our factory and employ a truckload of people. “

That dream, however, won’t be happening in North Saanich.

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