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West Kelowna: Builder forges homeowner's signature
Raymond Kohut was surprised to see what was being built next to his Lakeview Cove Road property after he recently returned from a trip out of country.
"A monstrosity of a house," as he described it in a letter, was being constructed next door to him, and on May 5 he called the District of West Kelowna to find out why.
Initially, District of West Kelowna staff were confused. They had a letter on file, seemingly signed by Kohut, indicating his approval of a building height variance that council voted in favour of April 8.
That variance increased the maximum allowable building height from nine metres to 13.4 metres for a parcel known as Lot 4, next door to Kohut's house.
Kohut went to Municipal Hall the next day and discovered his signature had been forged.
James Zeleznik, general manager of Jazel Homes, sent an e-mail to Kohut May 6, admitting he had committed fraud.
"I want to be completely up front with you and I was hoping to sit down with you sooner, as this has really been playing on my mind," wrote Zeleznik.
"In pressure from the developer, I signed the letter on your behalf, thinking that you would respond back to me quickly anyway…I thought that I would hear back from you soon and that all would be okay."
He went on to write, "I have been in business for 25 years, and I know the importance of someone's trust and my integrity, and this is why I feel so bad."
Zeleznik spoke to Capital News Wednesday. He said this was the first time in his career that he has ever forged someone's signature, and did so due to the pressure being put on him by the developer.
It was a mistake, he said, adding, "the district is kind of passing the blame."
"This is a horrible nightmare," said Zeleznik.
"Honestly, if you look at what happened, and really analyze how it happened, unfortunately I (got) stuck in the middle."
Zeleznik said the owner of Lot 4 bought the land knowing he could build a two-storey home.
Zeleznik's company presented a plan to the developers and was given approval to build the house, as the design met all of the developer's guidelines.
The Jazel Homes general manager was later informed by the district there was a problem with the building permit. He said he was told there were height problems with Lot 4, as well as Lots 5 and 6.
Zeleznik said he was informed the quickest way to get the variance issued would be for the developer to get a letter signed by the owners of each lot that was most affected.
The next day, the developer asked him to forward a letter on to Kohut, who lives on Lot 3, as well as the owner of Lot 4.
In an e-mail dated March 20, Zeleznik explained the situation to Kohut and asked for his signature.
Kohut responded to Zeleznik the same day, asking if the house on Lot 4 would end up towering over his.
Zeleznik wrote back several e-mails that evening, sending Kohut site plans and designs.
Zeleznik sent another e-mail March 28 with photos attached to give Kohut a visual example of how the neighbouring building would impact him.
Kohut didn't respond to any of these e-mails, but Zeleznik still opted to forge his signature.
"Knowing that he had received all the plans and information, I signed his name and sent it to the developer, thinking that if (Kohut) had any further comments or concerns about the building going on next to him, he would send back a reply either way," Zeleznik wrote in a statement.
"It was never my intent to sway the staff or council with the letter and if I knew that the owner had any issue with the variance being put forth, then that would have been left with the developer and (Kohut)."
Zeleznik added neither he or his company had any monetary gain in the outcome of the approval for a variance, other than the allowance to build the custom home he had been contracted to build for the owners of Lot 4.
He said he is curious why the District of West Kelowna didn't make a better effort to contact Kohut regarding the variance application. According to Zeleznik, they simply dropped a notice on Kohut's doorstep, which he didn't receive until he returned from overseas.
After Mayor Doug Findlater learned of the issue May 6, he called for a reconsideration of the resolution passed April 8.
"This whole thing is really a mess," said Findlater.
Findlater said this was only the second time he has issued a reconsideration during his time as mayor.
"I felt it was appropriate because we received information that some of the documentation we received was basically forged, concerning a letter of support, when in fact the resident involved is vociferously opposed," said Findlater.
"We rely on the public process…so to have something come in that's forged, really throws our process into some disarray."
Coun. Rick de Jong said he was happy the mayor brought the issue back to council for reconsideration.
"To get fraudulent information to base a decision on is somewhat unsettling, regardless of how it all transpired," said de Jong.
Nancy Henderson, general manager of development services, said staff's recommendation to issue the variance in the first place had a lot to do with Kohut's letter of support, considering he has a house on the property most affected by the change.
Although Kohut was initially strongly against the variance, he changed his tone in a letter sent to the district May 11.
"The work completed to date is substantial and (to) tear this down would in fact be a hardship and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention lost jobs in the community and an eye sore for months to come while this happens," wrote Kohut.
"Although I am still not overjoyed at such a huge variance, I would say now to leave the variance in place and return to business allowing the construction of (the) home on Lot 4.
Despite Kohut's change of heart, council unanimously voted to defer reconsideration, with the intention of putting it on the agenda of the May 27 meeting.
Zeleznik said construction on Lot 4 has stopped since learning of council's decision to defer reconsideration.