Surrey cracking down on construction crime

Journal of Commerce | Russell Hixson | May 11, 2022

Officials in Surrey are looking to crack down on illegal construction with a new, specialized team.

The Illegal Construction Enforcement Team (ICET) has been tasked with sniffing out unpermitted residential construction in Surrey.

The team’s formation follows a recent update to city bylaws that doubled fines from $500 to $1,000. The fines can now also be issued daily for each infraction, including construction without a permit, ignoring a stop work order, preventing an inspection and occupancy without a permit.

“All construction undertaken without the required permits is fundamentally Illegal,” said Sean Simpson, ICET lead. “Although not strictly defined, we tend to separate Illegal construction from unpermitted cases for our own use.”

He explained illegal construction typically refers to cases where the structure or renovation would not meet any of the current city bylaws or BC Building code requirements. Whereas, unpermitted construction may refer to a structure or renovation where the appropriate building permits have not been issued to ensure the work adheres to city zoning and building bylaws, in addition to meeting requirements of the BC Building Code, but may otherwise be eligible for a permit.

In addition to charges and injunctions resulting in court action that could lead to fines up to $50,000 per offence, property owners are subject to deconstruction and removal costs of unauthorized structures. Unpermitted construction could also jeopardize the future sale of the home and insurance companies may refuse to pay for claims resulting from problems associated with work that was performed illegally without proper inspections. Simpson added these projects can impact communities with construction noise and cause parking issues. 

“More importantly, beyond the substantial financial risks that a homeowner may bear for unpermitted or illegal construction, carrying out such work could lead to significant risk to life and safety of occupants,” said Simpson. “Statistics reveal that the existence of safety hazards is six times more likely with unpermitted and illegal work.”

ICET will deal with the most egregious properties as identified by the number of complaints and stop work orders issued, as well as other factors including whether life and safety issues. 

ICET will be targeting these properties first and will be issuing fines and in some cases bringing forward legal action until compliance with bylaws and zoning regulations are met.

In 2021, the city received over 2,600 complaints relating to construction activities and issued over 600 stop work orders.

Simpson noted since the beginning of 2018, the city has received an increase in the number of public complaints regarding perceived illegal construction.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has likely further increased the number of complaints possibly due to discretionary funds available for renovation or additions, as well as neighbours staying home and witnessing trades performing work on neighbouring properties,” said Simpson. “Complaints are most commonly associated with residential unpermitted construction with varying degrees of severity; however, other issues include construction not following permit requirements, occupancy without final approval, and non-residential construction.”

The cross-departmental team consists of two bylaw officers, three building officials, one staff lawyer and one clerk. Simpson said the team will collaborate and jointly visit properties to address complaints, building code violations and resolution options.

“The previous consequences for performing unpermitted and illegal construction were not sufficient to deter or reduce the problem without significant amendments to the city’s bylaws and internal processes,” said Simpson.

He added the rising cost and availability of real estate, combined with existing homeowners wishing to modify their homes to accommodate renters in secondary suites, and the time required to obtain some forms of permit from the city has exacerbated this problem. 

To file a complaint about construction that one suspects has been done without permits, email or call 604-591-4370. Complaints can also be submitted online through the Report a Problem application. Anonymous complaints will not be accepted.