Resident alleges favouritism in land issue involving city employee
A Burnaby man is questioning whether a neighbour is receiving preferential treatment in a land dispute because he works at city hall.
Two years ago, Kip Morison arrived at his Lawrence Drive home surprised to find the neighbour, who lives further up the slope on Tyndale Place, had taken down numerous trees on his own property.
But in an apparent desire to flatten out a piece of his sloped yard, a large amount of soil was moved off his yard onto the 18-foot-wide strip of city-owned land (providing access to transmission lines) that separates the neighbours' properties.
"So instead of having a flat piece of land between me and him down to the [Eagle] Creek, there's this massive pile of dirt that drains onto my property."
Morison immediately complained to Burnaby city hall, whose engineering staff confirmed the action was unauthorized and that the neighbour would be forced to remediate it.
That was in October 2010. Since then, Morison has learned that the neighbour is James Gutenberg, a Burnaby city building inspector. He says he now gets water draining into his carport after even a moderate rainfall, his interlocking deck has been damaged and the dirt pile may have caused runoff issues for other area residents.
After waiting more than a year for city hall to take action, Morison wrote to Mayor Derek Corrigan last November explaining the situation.
Corrigan replied in a December 2011 letter that he'd looked into the matter and gave assurances Gutenberg was not receiving special treatment and that the problem would be fixed in 2012.
Morison is still waiting.
"He destroyed it in half a day and he can fix it in half a day," he said. "But he doesn't want to, he knows he doesn't have to ... Clearly he's gotten away with it for two years."
Now he's wondering how much of his tax dollars have gone into the case already.
Corrigan received Morison's latest letter updating him on the situation and told the NewsLeader, "I was very embarrassed by it. It was one of those situations in which the city has dropped the ball and hasn't followed through nearly quickly enough to deal with the problem."
Corrigan said he's been assured Gutenberg is not receiving any special treatment and noted that city hall tends to exercise great patience with such property issues to avoid litigation as much as possible.
"Anytime you start suing your citizens it's highly charged and you try to avoid it in all circumstances because everybody loses," he said of the costs involved.
Indeed, cases of unsightly properties often drag on for years before council directs city crews to clean up the mess and bill it back to the land owner.
And while city hall can be patient when it's city property that's affected, Corrigan said staff should have been more attentive to the fact that another resident was being impacted.
Back in December 2011, Corrigan said, they were working towards having the property owner remove the fill by April 2012, when spring temperatures would make it easier and less expensive to do so than in winter.
"By April he hadn't complied and at that point we should have acted," Corrigan said. "But instead we kept arranging more meetings that weren't attended, trying to find a resolution. It ends up over the summer without anybody doing anything and we end up not sending a legal demand letter until September when finally our city solicitor writes a letter advising that we're going to sue."
He noted that the legal property owner is not Gutenberg but his partner, which added "an extra level of complexity" to the situation. "But clearly [Gutenberg] was standing in the place of the owner and he was the one doing all the talking to our staff about achieving compliance, so there's no question in my mind he was acting as if he were the owner of the property."
As for whether, as a city building inspector, Gutenberg should have known better than to do what was done to the property, Corrigan said, "the obvious answer to the question is, of course he should know.
"He also knows that the policy of the city is to try to achieve compliance without ending up going to court. So he also knows that we are victims of our own excessive patience. And so that leaves an opening for someone to take advantage of that and to string something out much longer than it would have been strung out in any other circumstance."
Corrigan made it clear he is not pleased.
He said he's asked the city manager to review the case.
"I'm looking forward to finding out what Mr. Gutenberg's version of the events is so that we can resolve it and ensure it doesn't happen again."
City staff have been "made well aware of my feelings on the matter, and so I think they'll be proceeding as expeditiously as they can." However, he couldn't provide a timeframe for the remediation work as it's now in the hands of the legal department.
Referring to Morison's rebuke to the mayor that the matter was unbecoming of Burnaby's title of Best Run City in Canada, Corrigan said, "I think that comment is deserved.
"Being the Best Run City in Canada doesn't mean you're perfect, but it does mean that you admit when you make a mistake and you get onto finding a way not to make that mistake again."
James Gutenberg did not return a message before the NewsLeader's deadline.