The Town gave a permit to the original owner to create 62 seasonal sites. Fast forward a couple of decades to the spring of 2020, when portions of the park flooded. Town resources helped, and, in a debrief afterwards, it was discovered that between 2003 and 2011, 51 additional sites were added to the campground without permits.
During the June 14, 2021, Regular Meeting of Council, Development Officer Sam Love brought forward the issue. "(The current campground owner) indicated that these 51 sites were there before he purchased the park, and he's added one site since he purchased it in 2011," he explained. The 51 additional sites include 19 fully serviced, 21 partially serviced and eleven not serviced.
Surrounding much of the campground is a town-owned Environmental Reserve area that cannot be used. "It looks like some RV's were parked on there in recent years, and there's one site on it (101) established without a permit. A couple of sites appear to be partially outside of the property line, which means that they are encroaching on town road allowance on River Park Road. There is a fence that they back out onto, and it looks like it's outside of the property line," explained Love.
The Whitecourt Fire Department had issues too. Love explained that their concerns included fire pits in the spring since the campground is open year-round. They also expressed concern for the winter months due to "safety issues in the winter such as furnaces, propane tanks and more people cooking inside the RV's instead of outside where there is less of a fire risk." Love said current owner Dwayne Gibson was willing to work with the department.
During the flood debrief, the risk from proximity to the river came up. "Alberta Environment is aware of the flood risk. Because they (the park) don't typically have permanent structures, Alberta Environment has advice on allowing RV parks in flood-prone areas. One idea is that the campground office has keys for the RVs. Last year several RV owners were out of town, and there was no way to get a hold of them to get their vehicles removed."
Tying into the flood risk, Alberta Environment mentioned that it's imperative to have an evacuation plan in place. "Last year, there was some advanced notice of the flood coming, but it was still a challenge getting people to get their RV's out and to notify them. It is essential from Administration's perspective to have an Emergency Evacuation Plan so that we don't run into this situation again."
In dealing with the unpermitted sites, Love said that Administration recommended approval on most of them except for the ones that flooded last year and the site on the Environmental Reserve Lot. "We should keep in mind that a decision made by Council cannot be appealed. This is the applicant's income, so Council might feel obligated to approve an application based on previous decisions. Council should look at each application individually with its own merits and try to find a solution to ensure public safety while acting in the best interest of the applicant and our community," explained Love.
Administration recommended approval for 95 out of the 113 sites and provided a long list of conditions for Gibson to follow. The flooded sites could still be used, providing Gibson submit an Emergency Evacuation Plan to the Town's satisfaction before July 31. Other conditions include providing a Real Property Report for the campground by the end of the month and relocating any fences encroaching on Town property by the end of August. Per the Alberta Building Code, Gibson cannot allow campers to use it as their only place of residency permanently. Even though he is permitted to be open year-round, campers are only allowed to stay for 60 days.
Love said that Gibson needs to keep records of who is renting the sites to be requested if required. "If there is another flood, we need to work with him to get people out of there and find out how to contact them. If no one knows their contact information, then that could be another crisis on our hands to deal with later on."
When Gibson spoke, he said that the campground had only flooded twice. "Once in 2012 and once in 2020, eight years apart. We were shut down for a total of two days each time. These were not life-threatening or property-threatening floods. We did a miscue last year and didn't get the camper out right away, but we did get her out without any damage. That's going to be duly noted and will be a big part of our Emergency Response Plan that we are putting together."
Concerning the fence encroaching on the Town's property, Gibson apologized on behalf of the previous owner who installed it and asked if it could remain until the Town needs the land. "For right now, it just doesn't make sense to move the fence a couple of feet at most when it's just a ditch." Dwayne also asked if the 60 days could be increased. He acknowledged that people could not use it as their permanent residence but felt the timeline was tight for workers that use the campground while working in the area. Administration mentioned that Council could decide to extend the 60-day tenant period later if they chose.
Councillor Paul Chauvet wondered why it took ten years before Administration noticed the missing permits. Councillor Ray Hilts wondered the same. CAO Peter Smyl explained that due diligence is in the hands of the buyer. "When I bought my house, I got a Real Property Report, and my fence wasn't on my property, and I had to move it. It is a buyer-beware scenario." Councillor Derek Schlosser said that sometimes when a business transaction occurs, as long as the business remains zoned the same, sometimes things go unchecked. "That's the cost of doing business, and that's the protection that we have as a community that we are protecting our residents and our community against whatever might happen in a private business."
Mayor Chichak agreed. "I support the recommendations that administration has made, and I think there is ample time for the applicant." Council voted unanimously to approve all of Administration's recommendations.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press