Fort McMurray resident frustrated by steep rebuild fees

Janene Whenham says the steep fees involved with rebuilding her home after it was destroyed by the Fort McMurray wildfire are like a “slap in the face.”

'You're making money off me losing everything ... it's disgusting,' homeowner says

Damage from the wildfires is seen in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood in Fort McMurray. (Canadian Press)

Janene Whenham says the steep fees involved with rebuilding her home after it was destroyed by the Fort McMurray wildfire are like a "slap in the face."

She returned to the northern Alberta city on June 3 to sift through what little remained of her family home.

Heartened by the outpouring of support and promise of assistance from the municipality, she was determined to rebuild.

But her optimism soon gave way to frustration, as the cost of permits and licences piled up.

In the end, she expects to pay more than $20,000 in direct and indirect municipal fees to rebuild on the same property.

"If the demolition permit and the tipping fees would have been waived from the beginning, at least the members of this community might have thought maybe they have their backs," Whenham said during an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. 

"But right off the bat, you're making money off me losing everything. I shouldn't have to pay to dump that waste.

"It's disgusting."

Whenham is not alone in her frustration. A growing number of complaints has prompted the municipality to re-evaluate its fee structure during the rebuild. A motion to re-evaluate the fee structure will be up for debate at Tuesday evening's municipal council meeting.

"Through a variety of informal and formal interactions with Wood Buffalo residents, the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee and councillors from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo understand that fees related to the cleanup and rebuild have been a concern," RMWB press secretary Russell Baker said in an emailed statement. 

"Given the nature of this situation, it is too early to say whether the municipality will be waiving fees for residents who lost their home to fire and are trying to rebuild."

'The second slap in the face'

After confirming her worst fear — that her home in Saprae Creek had been lost in the fire — Whenham applied for a demolition permit.

After three weeks of waiting, frantic phone calls and a letter of complaint to the mayor and city council, her demolition permit was finally approved at a cost of $200.

"This wasn't a surprise, we didn't go on vacation and come back to nothing. The city knew there was nothing ... so I figured they should have had this figured out," Whenham said. 

"We could have had this demolition permit waived. My home was already demolished."

We could have had this demolition permit waived. My home was already demolished.- Janene Whenham, Fort McMurray homeowner

Whenham scraped the six inches of ash that had filled the burned out hull of her basement, and hauled the charred remains of her property to the dump.

The cost of tipping fees? $3,800.

Though the municipality waived tipping fees at the landfill for residential vehicles after the wildfires, Whenham was charged the commercial rate, because she arrived in her work truck.

Her personal vehicle had burned along with her home.

"That was the second slap in the face," she said.

"I'm not opposed to getting permits. I think we need to follow the rules and the bylaws to make sure everything is done to code and safely. But why do I need to pay that?"

'A frustrating process'

The property then had to pass a final inspection, at an additional cost of $100.

The property passed inspection. But as soon as the papers were handed over, the workers began tearing down the safety fence that had been installed by the municipality in the days following the city-wide evacuation.  

"They did the final inspection and took the fence away, and said, 'Oh, by the way, you need a fence,' " Whenham said.

"I said, leave the fence. And they said,' No, no, now it's your responsibility to buy one.' They're about $14,000. As soon as you get your final inspection, the city was no longer responsible for the fence."

Whenham said the rules and bylaws existed before the wildfire, but she's frustrated and feels like the municipality is asking for money "every time you turned around."

The municipality has since issued a bulletin, saying that any property owners who fail to install safety fences by Oct. 31 will have one installed for them, and the costs will be applied to their taxes.

"I've told them I'm not paying for a fence," Whenham said. "They can go ahead and fine me if they want."

Here are some of the permit costs associated with Whenham's rebuild: 

  • Demolition permit: $200
  • Tipping fees: $3,800
  • Final utilities inspection: $100
  • Building permit: $5,000
  • Development permit: $75
  • Utility Connect permit: $100
  • Water meter connect permit: $260
  • Electrical permit: $230

After the property was cleaned and passed inspection, Whenham was issued an unsightly premises notice by the municipality, demanding that she "remedy dangers and unsightly property."

"We got our demolition permit on Friday, had our property cleaned right away," Whenham said. 

"A couple weeks later, I get a letter from the city that our property was unsightly, unsafe and it was a mess, and if it wasn't cleaned up they were doing it for us and they were going to charge us for it."

'I've lost everything'

The demolition order letters were sent to all owners of properties destroyed by the wildfire as part of the municipality's effort to quicken the rebuilding process. But Whenham said it was just another affront to evacuees struggling to rebuild.

Though she has insurance, any permit costs she incurs will cut into the insurance payout she's been provided for rebuilding her home. She estimates these costs are around $20,000 per homeowner. 

"The municipality has costs associated with this too. I get that. But just for the houses that are burned, [the municipality's] revenues are $24 million, money they hadn't accounted for in the previous budget," Whenham said.

"Why should I sacrifice something out of a house that I didn't want to build? I've lost everything, and some of it I'll never get back."

With files from Elizabeth Hames