Controversial Hopewell Ave. development swallows piece of neighbour’s yard

Janet Jull's house used to be bordered by a strip of land between 0.5 and 1.5 m wide. That land is now in the pit.

Excavation for the building of a controversial trio of townhouses on Hopewell Avenue has unexpectedly collapsed part of a neighbour’s property, engulfing a stretch of her lawn and a number of small trees.

A strip of land that ranged between half a metre and a metre and a half used to separate Janet Jull’s house at 67 Hopewell from the excavation going on at 71 Hopewell next door. But as rain poured down over the weekend of May 14th, that land simply slid into the pit, leaving part of the foundation of Jull’s house bare.

Jull was in her living room when she heard a crash and felt the house vibrating. The trees outside her window vanished from sight. “All of a sudden, they were gone,” she said. Jull also expressed relief that no workers were in the way of the falling earth and trees.

Franco Marino, of M. L. Marino Construction, the developer working at 71 Hopewell, has said he is willing to replace the lawn and the trees that were lost. Since Jull’s land could continue to fall into the pit, he wants to wait till construction is over to assess how much compensation exactly will be needed.

Assessments from a building inspector and a structural engineer after the collapse have cleared Marino of any wrongdoing during the excavation. They also found that although part of Jull’s foundation is exposed, it hasn’t suffered any damage. According to structural engineer Steven de Wit, Marino’s team dug to a depth that is shallow enough to avoid compromising the bearing capacity of Jull’s foundation.

Relations between the developer and the neighbour are cool.

They didn’t get off to a good start. Jull was one of many Old Ottawa south residents who opposed the construction of the row-houses from the beginning. In a story that got regular media coverage over the past year, the residents objected to the size of the building, which will occupy almost the entire lot, and the lack of a front yard – three garages and driveways will be at street level instead. They said the row houses didn’t fit in with other neighbourhood homes, which are either detached or semi-detached. 600 people signed a petition asking the city to ensure that “our public streetscapes are preserved and that building design is harmonious with existing homes.”

The city’s planning committee debated blocking the project. The townhouse design meets the city’s intensification and zoning requirements, but not its guidelines for infill housing, which state that landscaping of front yards must “blend with surrounding front yards’ landscaping patterns” and “create a significant green presence.” The planning committee ultimately decided that the zoning requirements trumped the infill guidelines, and that the Ontario Municipal Board would overrule any decision to block construction, anyway.

So in April of this year, a bulldozer tore down the two-story detached yellow clapboard house that used to stand at 71 Hopewell, and soon afterward, Marino began excavating to prepare for the laying of the townhouses’ foundation.

Jull gave Marino access to her back yard to help with building.

But when the excavation began three weeks ago, Jull said water immediately began leaking into her basement. She said that when she confronted Marino about it, he said that the leak was her responsibility and that it happened because her house is almost a hundred years old.

When the collapse occurred during the weekend of May 14th, Jull said it was only after she called the city to complain that Marino noticed the damage. But Marino said in his defence that he put up a mesh fence around the hole as soon as he found out, and he hired the building inspector and the structural engineer to assess the damage on the Monday immediately following.

Jull, a PhD. student at the University of Ottawa studying population health, has three young children and has stopped them from playing outside ever since the ground collapsed. She said she also worries for the many children who live in the area and who walk by her house on the way to school.

Jull said Marino hasn’t been understanding of her position. “There’s no offer for anything more like, look here, I’ve completely inconvenienced you, jeopardized your safety, you know, like here, what can I do to help you out with this? — there’s none of that – it’s more like he’s going to give the bare minimum.”

When asked what she would like from Marino, Jull answered, “Just a collaborative attitude.”

But for his part, Marino said that Jull, like many in the community, holds a grudge against him that began with the proposal for the unpopular triple row-houses.

He was reluctant to speak with OSCAR because he said the media has not been fair to him so far, painting him like the bad guy.

He pointed out repeatedly that the building inspector and engineer have shown that he did nothing wrong, and that he will compensate Jull for the damage to her property.

Marino also said that this is the first time in 25 years in the business that a part of a neighbour’s yard has collapsed while he was working next door.

And he said that he gets along fine with the neighbour on the other side, at 75 Hopewell.

Marino said that the tree roots that were on the strip of ground separating Jull’s house from the pit caused everything to give way at once. He also said the eaves troughs of Jull’s house are plugged, and that as a result, water seeped into the land, making it vulnerable to collapse.

In reaction to this, Jull said that her lawn collapsed along the whole length of her property – not just where her house is. She said clogged eaves troughs can’t explain the collapse of part of her backyard.

Jull welcomed Marino’s offer for compensation, and said she will probably not go to court over the disagreement. “Getting upset about it is not really that helpful at this point, and I have three small children and my husband is deployed right now, so I really have to keep things normal for them at home,” she said. Jull’s husband is currently in Italy with the Canadian forces.

Real estate lawyer Brian Delaney said in an interview that settlement outside of court is the norm in cases like this one where a developer damages a neighbour’s property. Legal fees for a civil suit would range anywhere between $20,000 and $200,000, he said.

And Dorel Mihai, a structural engineer, said in an interview that when lots are small and buildings are close to one another like they are here, collapses of land are common. But he said that usually, neighbours and developers are on better terms.

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