RDCK powerless to deal with homeless squatters on Crown lands

Local government officials say provincial rule changes have made them nearly powerless to do anything to address the issue of people squatting on Crown land.

Regional District of Central Kootenay's board directors got a crash course from staff on what they can do when they get a complaint from a constituent about problem illegal campers.

“Everyone’s patience is really run ragged,” says Area I Director Andy Davidoff.

Davidoff requested the RDCK’s Rural Affairs Committee discuss the issue after working for months trying to deal with a squatter living in an RV up a forest service road near Pass Creek.

“They’re allowed to stay there 14 days under the Province’s Land Act,” said Davidoff. “And there are dump truck loads of material that this squatter brought onto the parking lot that is used by the snowmobile club.”

Davidoff tried following up on his constituents’ complaints by trying to get the usual authorities involved.

But months went by and all he had to show for it was a long email chain from the local MLA, fire department, a local snowmobile association, the RCMP, Natural Resource Officers, RDCK bylaw enforcement, Public Health, and others.

“Then there was an explosion of a propane tank in the camper that caused a forest fire that was luckily put out very quickly before the whole Pass Creek Valley went up in flames,” he said.

“And nobody could do anything.”

Volunteers arranged to clean up the mess, and he says dump truck loads of waste and five to six derelict vehicles were removed from the site. The man has since moved on.

Then to put icing on the cake, the Province came to Davidoff asking for a grant to cover the cost of the tipping fees for cleaning up the mess.

Fewer tools

Now, Davidoff says, even the meagre tools they had before have been taken away.

“The NRO wrote to me to say they no longer have the authority to address squatters or the homeless on Crown land. That is now a different department,” Davidoff told his fellow board members. “When I contacted the MLA’s office, they didn’t have a clue as to what this was…

“I said, ‘what am I expected to do?’”

There are similar stories in nearly every area of the RDCK. Several other directors said they had received calls from constituents worried about small public-use sites being taken over, pollution of wetlands, garbage-strewn illegal campsites, and people living in RVs – which is technically illegal in the Regional District. Conflicts between residents, land users and squatters are becoming more frequent.

The problem is compounded when the squatter is on private land. In those cases, a bylaw to allow the Regional District to order an area cleaned up would give directors at least one tool to enforce a clean-up of unsightly premises. But many rural voters reject the measure, which they see as government over-reach.

That’s hamstrung Area D Director Aimee Watson from acting on complaints.

“I have a ton of garbage piling up on a mix of land, Crown and private,” she said. “And they are really spreading their wings.”

Who’s in charge?

Exasperated directors asked the head of RDCK’s bylaw service what they can do.

“The bylaw team has no statutory authority. We defer to the [Natural Resource Officers] on Crown land,” said Jordan Dupuis.

But he then read from an email he had received from the Natural Resources Enforcement supervisor. It indicated that “while Natural Resource officers were the lead authority for enforcement of the Land Act, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction are the lead agencies with files on homelessness,” it said. “We recommend you contact them in regard to occupation of Crown land by individuals who are homeless.”

NROs now only get involved when requested to by the Social Development ministry, Dupuis added. Otherwise, they’re hands-off.

He also noted provincial rules now forbid municipalities from prohibiting parks and public spaces from being used for “temporary overnight shelter,” he said, noting the law is even moving farther, and establishing a right to camp, unless designated areas have been set aside for homeless shelter.

Area G Director Hans Cunningham complained if it’s provincial land and local governments have no authority, then it should be left to the Province to clean up the messes.

“I have been informed there’s no budget for cleanup,” Dupuis informed the frustrated directors.

Call your director, they’ll call bylaw

“So the first question for all us directors is, what’s our best path?” asked Area G Director Garry Jackman.

Dupuis said that his department has established contacts with authorities who do have responsibility for addressing such situations, and can call the appropriate agency.

“We can use the networks we have with different agencies to leverage those when we can,” he said. But even he expressed frustration at the system.

“Three days before Christmas, I had to find housing for seven people living in RVs just outside Nelson,” he told directors. “You can imagine how popular that made us around here…. I waited on hold with that ministry for about 45 minutes. Spoke with someone, an intake person… ‘oh yes, someone has to call, there’s a waiting list’...

“The waiting list was ridiculous, 2,000 people or whatever, it was a substantial number. So the money is getting put in place, but it’s not necessarily happening quickly.”

Important discussion

No motions or resolution was expected to come from the hour-long discussion, but Rural Affairs Committee Chair Garry Jackman said it was time well spent.

“It brought directors a shared understanding of our rural issues, plus it identified supports for rural directors when public approach us, which can help manage public expectations,” he said. “The issues on Crown land are not within our direct jurisdiction, so direct action by our bylaw enforcement is generally not applicable.

“Homelessness, especially in rural areas, involves overarching issues which go beyond the authority and direct control of local government.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice