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The Battle of Bennington Heights

21 Evergreen Gardens

The house at 21 Evergreen Gardens that sits on a 95-foot square lot

UPDATE

After our print deadline the OMB announced it approved severance of the property, an increase of the floor space index to 0.67 from 0.6 and lot coverage from 35 percent to 38.2 percent. But it denied the variance for height. The two homes will be built to 8.5 metres, say the developers.

Howard Tencer and Tracey Fines have lived in Bennington Heights for almost 10 years. They are, among other things, builders of modern, contemporary homes. Two examples of their work can be found at 445 Heath St. East and 8 Evergreen Gardens.

Their original development plan was to buy 21 Evergreen Gardens, sever the 95-foot (29 metres) by 95-foot (29 metres) lot into two equal parts and then build two homes, one of which their family would inhabit.

Save Our Bennington is a group of concerned individuals living in Bennington Heights who’ve joined together to fight hyper-growth in the area. Well organized, their lawn signs read: Will Densification Destroy the Character of our Neighbourhood?

That’s a perfectly reasonable question. But the answer’s not nearly so simple, and the path to it has created bitterness between both parties. 

For those unaware of the property, it is an oversized lot with an existing L-shaped home whose east wall borders the southern portion of Evergreen Gardens Park. Although there are a number of different lot sizes in Bennington Heights, big ones like 21 Evergreen Gardens are few and far between.

Some estimate the number of 100-foot lots (30.5 metres) in the area at around 12, perhaps less. The more common size is 50 feet (15.2 metres) of frontage, which is still much bigger than the 35 feet (10.7 metres) typically found in Leaside.

The couple negotiated a purchase agreement with the home’s owner contingent on the severance and all variances applied for receiving approval from the city. They got the severance approval on May 8 at the Committee of Adjustment meeting in North York, but the variances they sought were rejected at the same time despite offering reductions in height, floor space index and lot coverage.

Councillor John Parker says he wrote a letter to the committee on May 7 supporting the severance but opposing all three variance requests. The councillor also says he believes  that Save Our Bennington made a mistake appealing the severance approval to the Ontario Municipal Board because it provided Tencer and Fines with a cross appeal on the variance requests denied by the city.

The OMB held a nine-hour hearing Oct. 24 and is expected to have a decision sometime in January.

Jennifer Rideout is a co-founder of the Save Our Bennington group. She’s on record stating: “This isn’t a fight against developers; this is about maintaining the integrity and character of Bennington.”

She says the area around 21 Evergreen Gardens is a tree-lined, unique part of the neighbourhood. Save Our Bennington isn’t necessarily opposed to the demolition of houses to make way for new ones, it’s that they stick to East York Zoning By-Law 1916 in terms of height, floor space and lot coverage as well as matching the surrounding environment.

On both of these fronts, Tencer and Fines are clearly at loggerheads with Save our Bennington’s vision for the community.

If you look at a summary of the variance approvals in Bennington Heights between 2003 and July 2013, you’ll find that the city has made a number of decisions in favour of additional height, floor space and lot coverage beyond the zoning by-law limits.

The height variance Tencer and Fines seek is 8.8 metres, exceeding the zoning by-law limits by 0.3 metres. For those metrically challenged that’s less than a foot.

Meanwhile, the city has approved 9 metres or more on at least six occasions and in July this year gave the thumbs up to the couple’s own home at 445 Heath St. East, which measures 8.84 metres, 0.34 metres (1.1 foot) in excess of the zoning by-law.

The bitterness that’s developed between the two parties is an example of what can go wrong when developers and residents clash over the future direction of a community.

Tencer and Fines say it hurts deeply to know that despite trying to be responsible neighbours and businesspeople, a certain segment of the community has chosen to oppose them because their project at 21 Evergreen Gardens threatens to open a Pandora’s Box of unwanted development in the immediate area.

Tencer and Fines complain that despite there being precedence for each one of their variance requests, Save Our Bennington have to date shown no willingness to negotiate a compromise.

Worse still, says Fines, she was jostled by a Save Our Bennington supporter as they made their way to their seats prior to the OMB hearing. Rideout says that no one she’s spoken to had seen such an event, only that there was a discussion prior to the hearing between Ms. Fines and a Save Our Bennington supporter who previously backed the builders’ plan.

In a letter received by Leaside Life from Tencer and Fines, Tencer says that “one of the Save Our Bennington appellants commented to my wife, that while they will probably wish to sever their lot for sale in a few years just as we are trying to do, they ‘have’ to oppose us in our application. What outright hypocrisy!”

Leaside Life has not made the couple’s life any easier, reporting inaccuracies in our October and November issues.

In October we wrote that the plans for 21 Evergreen Gardens called for “two identical homes” to be built. That was lifted from Save Our Bennington’s issue page on its website. That’s not true and the group is aware of this fact, say Tencer and Fines.

They say Save Our Bennington was made aware that the identical homes presented in a first proposal to the city was actually the plan for a previous project using the same floor plan to get the proposal in and that officials were told that the real proposal was two different homes.

Rideout says, “The designs that were received by the community before the OMB hearing were the same ones shown by the developers to the Committee of Adjustment. Those designs were the ones communicated to the neighborhood by the city in its circular and on the Save Our Bennington website. We received new drawings (not architectural plans) from Ms. Fines a few days before the OMB hearing – and she showed these same (old) drawings at the hearing.”

In the same issue we also reported that “all local residents” were in opposition to the proposal. That too was lifted from the Save Our Bennington website. It’s also inaccurate. Rideout said this about the level of support: “At the OMB there were some 40 people in attendance from the community, of which two were in favor (friends of the developer, neither lived within a block of 21 Evergreen) and the rest opposed.”

Rideout indicates the wording on its issue page will be changed to more accurately reflect the facts before the OMB.

Our mistakes were unintentional and we’re sorry for that.

In the November issue we messed up the numbers by saying the height variance sought by Tencer and Fines was 10 feet, when in fact we’d first reported it as 10 percent in the October issue. Neither figure is correct. The latter figure was obtained from Save Our Bennington’s website and says the homes will be10 percent taller than the 8.5 metres allowed by zoning by-laws. The real figure, using Tencer and Fines’ original variance request of nine feet, is less than six percent. Again, we are sorry for the misinformation.

Lost in this battle between these two opposing interests is the current homeowner. Selling an oversized lot like the one at 21 Evergreen Gardens can’t be easy given the economics of building a larger home on the property.

Tencer and Fines provided the owners with an opportunity to cash out their nest egg (at their price) with the sale conditional on both the severance and variance approvals from the city. When Save Our Bennington successfully lobbied the Committee of Adjustment, it pushed back the homeowner’s timeline by as much as a year. Regardless of which side you fall on, you can’t help but empathize with their situation.