Proposed changes won't do much to help residents caught in Crown Lands disputes, warns lawyer

Real estate lawyer Greg French says potentially thousands of people across Newfoundland and Labrador — especially in rural areas — could be affected by disputes over Crown Land. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Real estate lawyer Greg French says potentially thousands of people across Newfoundland and Labrador — especially in rural areas — could be affected by disputes over Crown Land. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

A Clarenville lawyer says proposed legislative changes won't do much to help Newfoundland and Labrador residents caught in property disputes with the provincial government.

For years, Greg French has been advocating for changes to provincial legislation covering adverse possession — more commonly known as squatter's rights — in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Earlier this week, the provincial government announced it would hold public and stakeholder consultations on proposed amendments to the Lands Act — but according to French, none of the amendments address the root of the problem affecting his clients.

"There are solutions that are bigger that need to be identified, that need to be looked at and need to be put in place for things to work as they should in the 21st century," he said.

The provincial government abolished squatter's rights in 1976, instead requiring property owners to have a Crown grant if they believe they own land that was once public. Alternatively, property owners can obtain two affidavits from community members who can swear the land was occupied for the 20 years prior to 1977.

According to French, that 1977 deadline is where most of his clients run into trouble.

"Land title in this province was turned into a game of musical chairs in 1977," he said.

"You can't fault somebody for building a house in 1968 based on the laws that stood in 1968 and then turn around and change the law in '77 to take that land right back again."

Three potential changes

The provincial government is proposing three changes to the Lands Act — though Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture Minister Derrick Bragg, who's also responsible for Crown Lands, said more could be added during consultations.

Bragg said consultations, which will involve stakeholders and members of the public, will last until Jan. 27.

"We're looking forward to what everyone has to say on this," he said.

The province is proposing a five-year limit for future claims of adverse possession prior.

"We need people to get out and get it done," Bragg said.

Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

But French said he doesn't believe that time limit is viable.

"I really don't think that's going to work in practice without doing a lot of harm to people," he said.

Under another proposed change, residents would only have to prove occupation for 10 years, rather than 20, before 1977. French said that would only be a Band-Aid solution.

"That only buys us a couple of years before we have the same problem all over again," he said.

French said another change, which would see the province issuing documents declaring no interest in land, holds promise but he needs more information.

"We have no specifics about how this is expected to work," he said.

Exploits PC MHA Pleaman Forsey said he's pleased to see the provincial government begin to address Crown Lands disputes but says he's worried the current proposal won't do enough.

"People are still going to find themselves in the same amount of cost and frustrations that they did before," he said.

Alternative solutions

In 1984, Pauline and Randy Diamond built their house on a parcel of land in Catalina passed down by Pauline's father. After Pauline was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the couple decided to sell their home and move into an accessible apartment — that's when they began having problems.

The Crown Lands division is contesting the Diamonds' claim to the land, so they can't sell the property unless they prove they own the land — or buy it from the Crown at market price.

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Pauline's father bought the land in 1981 — she has the receipt — but since the land went unoccupied during the 1960s, the provincial government says the family cannot claim adverse possession. The Diamonds aren't alone; CBC News has spoken to several individuals dealing with similar circumstances.

French said he can't speak about the case because he's representing the Diamonds. But he said the government's proposed changes won't help them, although he does have some ideas.

"We can find alternate ways to resolve the problem, be that changing the cutoff year to something later than 1977, or be that a restoration of squatter's rights," he said.

Those ideas aren't among the proposed amendments, but Bragg said the provincial government plans to consult with the lawyers and real estate agents who deal with Crown Land disputes.

"We need to find some solutions for the rural parts of this province," he said.

He wouldn't speak specifically about the Diamonds' case but said there are grey areas the provincial government wants to clarify.

"We're not looking at complicating issues for people. We're looking at finding a way to give them some sort of a documentation," he said.

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