John Risley

Municipal planners have told John Risley he can’t connect his two south-end Halifax mansions across property lines, and at a hearing later this month, the billionaire will appeal the decision.

The two properties are on Emscote Drive, near Point Pleasant Park. They’re side by side, civic 5956 and 5964, with long lawns down to the Northwest Arm, directly across from the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron.

Provincial property records show Risley bought them in 2014 and 2015 with numbered companies. He paid $5 million for 5956 Emscote Dr. in 2015 and $3.5 million for 5964 Emscote in 2014, according to sales data from ViewPoint Realty.

The 2014 listing for 5964 Emscote Dr. called the three-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom home a “rare opportunity” on the arm, boasting “Over an acre of waterfront in one of the finest areas of the southend.

“Surrounded by other prestigious single family homes in a mature and exclusive neighborhood. This one owner home was built to last and recently has had much work done to ready it for new owners! Incomparable!”

Municipal building permit data indicates Risley demolished the building that summer and by 2016, according to the Property Valuation Services Corporation, he’d built an 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, eight-bathroom home in its place.

5964 Emscote Dr. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Next door, at 5956 Emscote Dr., Risley got a demolition permit, a pool construction permit, and a building permit in 2017.

According to PVSC, an 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, seven-bathroom home was completed on the property in 2019.

He also got a permit to renovate the building in 2019. Those renovations appear to still be underway; on Tuesday, there was a fence, forklift, dumpster, plywood, and porta-potty in front of the property, with a sign denoting the permit number from 2017.

5956 Emscote Dr. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

The other property, 5964 Emscote Dr., appears to be complete and lived in, with three SUVs in the driveway.

In 2017, Risley amalgamated the numbered companies used to purchase the properties, creating Emscote Holdings Ltd., which now owns 5956 and 5964 Emscote Dr. — four properties in total, including two water lots on the Northwest Arm. Provincial property records indicate the company has a 2020 mortgage, which “shall not exceed the principal sum of $96,000,000.00,” on those properties and four at the end of Tremont Street in Chester.

Risley is a director of Emscote Holdings, along with Stan Spavold. Spavold, with Seattle addresses listed in the registry of joint stocks, is also president of CFFI Ventures Inc., a holding company of which Risley is the CEO.

The sign showing a permit number for 5956 Emscote Dr., with 5964 visible to the right. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

In July, Emscote Holdings applied to the municipality for a variance to the land-use bylaw governing development on the Halifax peninsula.

The bylaw requires buildings to be set back six feet from the property lines. Emscote Holdings wanted to reduce the setbacks to zero feet, municipal spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray said in an email, “in order that the additions meet at the property line.”

The HRM Charter sets out the criteria against which the Development Officer evaluates a variance request,” Spray said.

“In this case, it was determined that the proposals violate the intent of the Land Use By-law and the difficulty experienced is general to the area.”

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

Risley has appealed that decision, and on Tues., Jan. 19 at 6pm, the Halifax and West Community Council will hold a public hearing to decide whether he should be allowed to connect the two mansions.

“Staff will make a short presentation to Council, after which Council will hear from the applicant and from any other assessed owner within 100 metres of the properties who wish to speak,” Spray said.

“Council will then decide on the appeal, either to allow it (which would overturn the Development Officer’s refusal) or deny it (which would uphold the Development Officer’s decision to refuse).”

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. Mr. Risley bought adjoining properties for his own reasons. Granting him this variance would not impede emergency vehicles and such. Certainly, nearby neighbors might have a concern about restricting their view-lines. However, this is a potential problem with any real estate holding- someone who might build and obstruct your view of the water will likely do it because they can, and there is little that can be done to stop that.

  2. The evils of the numbered company. The entitled few. I presume he is not responsible for the property taxes but rather his company. Perhaps he entertains high powered business execs as a excuse for a writeoff and avoid capital gains taxes.

    I’m impressed Zane Woodford got those pics. I would have thought the unibrowed misanthrope would have security him bum rushed from the area.

    1. Many small businesses in Nova Scotia and across the country are registered as a numbered company because the legal work is easier than spending hours ensuring another business has not registered the same or very nearly the same name. And that is just one reason. You need to study ‘Registering a business 101’.

  3. A million dollars would change the life of almost anybody.
    This man has that MORE than 1000 times over.

    A super yacht under construction, a sailing yacht, several planes, a live-in mansion in Halifax, (with a tear-down mansion next door 😉 ) and another mansion in Chester that’s even crazier and bigger mansion on one of his two private islands…and who knows what else.
    Is there any end point that will satisfy his lust for opulence?
    Does anybody know 3 spirits that could visit him in the night and change his ways?

    1. Imagine if we taxed the crap out of ultra low density housing on the peninsula. I don’t really care if some rich dude wants to build a monster house in a rural area, but doing it an urban area is stealing from everyone else.

  4. Hey look, I found a perfect location to house the many folks struggling to find affordable housing.

    1. If only Council could make that a condition to granting the exemption. Mr. Risley (the personification of a truly entitled A-hole) can have his exemption providing he building equivalent sized buildings (22,000 square feet if my math is correct) for non-profit and or co-op housing enterprises that already exist, with the non-profit or co-op having the final say on the plans so that as many units as possible can be provided (at 500 square feet per unit, my math says that would be 44 units). 🙂

      Seriously, though, how much space does one family need? How many people are living in these two homes? I don’t understand why people need that many bathrooms. There are more bathrooms in the first described house than there are bedrooms in the two combined! No one really needs more than one full bathroom, although I can understand having a second (half-bath) if one has young kids.

      I hope Halifax Examiner posts the follow up – and I’d love to see how each councilor votes, or at least the names of any that vote to allow this variance.