28 Jun Civil Civil Servants Solved our Problems
I have so appreciated the helpfulness and civility of Halifax’s civil servants. They have worked with us with patience and kindness to figure out ways that we could live in our current house while we build a new house directly behind on the same property. Who knew it would take many conversations with several different staff to make it possible, but they figured it out.
Two separate residences
We had two challenges. First of all, city planning won’t allow two separate residences on one R2 property (a residential designation) – not yet, anyway. There is a growing public push to allow this such that people could build a second and separate living unit, maybe converting a garage or building elsewhere on the property. This would be such a help not only for living accommodation for an aging population, but also for young adults in these changing times.
Planning does allow two units in an R2 zone if they are joined, but that wasn’t going to work for us. What the city finally figured out for our situation was this: build the new house while living in the old house; take down the old house; and then apply for an occupancy permit to live in the new house. It felt like city staff were bending over backwards to figure out how we could achieve what we wanted to do.
Thank goodness we can move all our things into the new house before we ourselves are allowed to move in. And thank goodness for a neighbourhood friend who invited us to live with her during that awkward phase between taking down the old house and being allowed to move into the new one.
Connecting to water and sewer
Our second challenge was about digging a trench in the road to connect to water and sewer. We were in a panic one day several months ago when we received a letter (as did all our neighbours) from a different city department stating that the road we live on would be resurfaced in the summer and residents wouldn’t be allowed to dig up the road or make any curb cuts for two years after the roadwork was completed.
What?! Did that mean we would have to wait two years before we could build our house?!
At first, we hoped that we would be far enough advanced in our plans that we could get the trench dug before the road was resurfaced. The snag was that our building plans weren’t ready to be submitted. We received a clear and succinct NO from a city water engineer that we couldn’t dig a trench and make the water/sewer connection before the building plans were approved (and before the road work was done). That seemed only right to us, so we didn’t argue.
What to do? And how could we go about connecting the new water line during construction, and capping the old water line after we moved out of the old house, without digging up the road two times?
Here again, civil servants went out of their way to figure out how we could move forward in a way that respected and aligned with city policies. For instance, a staff person from Development Services connected with a city water engineer and me all on the phone at the same time, trying to figure things out.
Here’s where we finally landed with our city’s very civil, civil servants and the policies they have to follow. Yes, we could dig up the road in less than 2 years after it was resurfaced. Yes, we could dig it up only once, which would save us a lot of money and reduce disturbance of the road. A different city water engineer worked out that we could lay in place a 4-inch PVC sleeve with a very shallow curve at the beginning of construction, such that a new water line could be threaded through the sleeve months later after we took down the old house, when we could – in one step – cap the old line and connect the new line.
Powerless communication sounds, to my ears, like it would not be a helpful tool, but I have found it to be quite powerful. I like to think that what helped along the conversations was not only the attention and respect from civil servants, but also efforts on our part to use strategies of what author Adam Grant in his book Give and Take describes as powerless communication:
- expressing vulnerability – for me, that meant being very open and making vulnerable statements about our concerns
- asking questions about what their needs were and what they could and would act on
- talking tentatively with expressions such as “I wonder if” and “Would it be possible”
- asking for advice, which combines expressing vulnerability, asking questions, and talking tentatively.
Asking for advice I found was very effective, because it seemed to encourage others to take our perspective. Throughout this stage of the “building-a-new-house” process, I don’t think I ever felt frustrated. It felt, rather, like going on an interesting expedition. I was always confident that somehow the city’s civil servants would figure out a way for us to move forward. And they did.
Next time, I’ll talk about the decision my husband and I made to tear down the old house. How could a couple who have always espoused conservation consider tearing down a house? And what are some other alternatives?