5956 Emscote Dr. earlier this month, with 5964 visible to the right. — Photo: Zane Woodford

Billionaire John Risley called into the meeting to make the case himself, but he couldn’t convince enough councillors to let him connect his two south end mansions.

Following an appeal hearing at the Halifax and West Community Council’s meeting on Tuesday, councillors voted to uphold the planning department’s decision to deny Risley’s request for a variance to the city’s land-use bylaw. Councillors Shawn Cleary and Patty Cuttell voted in favour of Risley’s appeal.

As the Halifax Examiner first reported earlier this month, Risley bought the two south end properties on Emscote Drive on the Northwest Arm in 2014 and 2015 and demolished the existing homes. He built an 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, eight-bathroom home at 5964 Emscote Dr. and an 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, seven-bathroom home at 5956 Emscote Dr.

Risley currently owns the properties through a holding company, Emscote Holdings Ltd.

Last summer, architect Michael Grunsky applied on Risley’s behalf for a variance to the land-use bylaw for the area, hoping to build additions to both homes that would connect them, effectively creating a 22,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom, 15-bathroom mansion.

The land-use bylaw requires buildings to be six feet from the property line. Grunsky applied to reduce that distance, called the setback, from six feet to zero feet for both properties.

As planner Matthew Conlin and development officer and principal planner Rosemary MacNeil put it in the staff report to the Halifax and West Community Council, “The proposed additions to the dwellings would create a connection at the shared lot line, being an enclosed structure allowing internal access between the dwellings.”

Design drawings attached to the staff report show the two buildings connecting with sort of a breezeway between the two, located near an underground parking garage and indoor swimming pool in 5956 Emscote Dr.

A design drawing showing 5956 Emscote Dr. on the left, with the connection to 5964 Emscote Dr. on the right. — Screenshot: HRM/Michael Grunsky Architect
A design drawing showing 5956 Emscote Dr. on the left, with the connection to 5964 Emscote Dr. on the right. — Screenshot: HRM/Michael Grunsky Architect

The planners denied Risley’s request because they say it violates the intent of the land-use bylaw.

While it is common in some areas of the peninsula for two buildings to share a wall at the property line, it’s not common in this neighbourhood, they argue in the staff report, and “an enclosed corridor between the two dwellings separated with a partition wall and code compliant doorway on the common property boundary results in what could be considered as a single building on more than one lot.”

Conlin and MacNeil continue:

The zoning in the area limits the permitted land uses to single unit dwellings only. While individually the proposed structures technically satisfy this requirement, the proposed adjacency of the two buildings effectively results in two dwelling units contained within what would appear to be a single structure. Staff believe that outcome would be inconsistent with the intent of the bylaw.

Grunsky argued in a letter attached to the report that “the applicable land use by-laws did not foresee the circumstances of this case, namely: a single owner / occupant of two adjacent properties that are to be used in the manner of a single occupancy and therefore require a physical link in order to meet the needs of the owner / occupant.”

A rendering overlaid on a photo shows the proposed connection between 5956 (left) and 5964 Emscote Dr. — Screenshot/HRM
A rendering overlaid on a photo shows the proposed connection between 5956 (left) and 5964 Emscote Dr. — Screenshot/HRM

Conlin and MacNeil’s response:

As outlined in this report, the [land-use bylaw] intends to limit the ability for a building to be located on more than one lot and intends to limit buildings in the area to a single dwelling unit. All other lots in the area are subject to the same requirements and the properties in question have no unique physical conditions that require a variance to allow orderly development.

The appropriate response to the desire to link the two buildings for a single occupancy is to connect the structures, consolidate the lots and remove one of the two kitchens.

During the hearing on Tuesday, Risley told the community council he originally wanted to consolidate the lots and keep both kitchens. He told councillors he built a house with two kitchens in the south end before, on Thornvale Avenue, and thought he could do it again.

“It never occurred to us as we were proceeding down this path that we would be offending any of the city’s bylaws or restrictions by having a single-family house with two kitchens because we already had one,” Risley said.

John Risley

Risley explained that he wanted the house at 5956 Emscote Dr. to be used for entertaining guests and hosting fundraisers, and he needed both kitchens.

“If you were to, for some reason, say no to our request, then we would have to consolidate the properties,” Risley said. “We would have to go to great expense to tear out one of the kitchens, which is obviously not something we want to do, and and then we wouldn’t be able to use the property as we had intended it because we’d only have one kitchen.”

The councillor for the area, Waye Mason, argued there was no justification for allowing Risley’s request and asked his colleagues to vote down the appeal.

But Coun. Shawn Cleary compared the situation to a homeowner connecting a garage and a house, or even the creation of a secondary suite in a basement, where a home would then have two kitchens.

Cleary also noted that none of the surrounding property owners objected to the request, and none of them signed up to speak during the hearing.

“No one objected, everyone said it’s fine by me, so I’m not even sure what the purpose of the hearing is if we’re not going to listen to the neighbours,” Cleary said.

“I believe in democracy, and I believe in looking at the rules that we have in front of us and interpreting the rules for situations that are in front of us … I think we need to allow the appeal.”

Coun. Patty Cuttell argued the situation was so unique that approving the variance wouldn’t set any type of precedent, so it should be allowed to proceed.

“It’s a very unusual circumstance to connect homes through this type of breezeway or corridor,” Cuttell said.

Cleary and Cuttell were the only votes in favour of the appeal. Mason, along with councillors Kathryn Morse, Iona Stoddard, and Lindell Smith voted to uphold the staff recommendation.

A young white man with a dark beard, looking seriously at the viewer in a black and white photo

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Surprised that this proposal would have been voted down in light of the fact that neighboring property owners did not object. Risley’s request is one that speaks to why there are variances that are considered.
    In that respect, it appears not unlike a non-conforming use that is permitted since the non-conforming nature is unlikely to be replicated and given that there is no objection from those taxpayers in the immediate vicinity.

  2. Is the kitchen thing really a fundamental thing in a by-law? It just seems like a total red herring. Until Risley brings it up everything has to do with the fact that there are setbacks on buildings and the property lines. If the lots aren’t consolidated, you can’t connect the two buildings

  3. Someone could have pointed out that some religious traditions have two kitchens – the Jewish religion for one has two kitchens – one kosher and one non kosher – but really that’s a stupid reason for the breezeway – both houses of that size could accommodate a kitchen – you do t need either house for just the kitchen – if he really wants to connect the houses they say the parking is underground – why not just make a small underground tunnel between the two houses – problem solved 🙂