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B.C. judge sides with regional district in dispute over 'untidy and unsightly' property

Scales of justice. (Shutterstock) Scales of justice. (Shutterstock)
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A B.C. judge has ruled that the owners of a Princeton property have violated the district's bylaw on "untidy and unsightly premises" and ordered them to clean it up, bringing an end to a years-long dispute.

The Supreme Court decision detailing the long-running conflict was handed down last month and posted online Wednesday. The initial complaint about the parcel, located in the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen on Highway 5A, dates back to 2019, the court heard.

In May of that year, Robert John Hart purchased the property when its owner – who was a friend or "close acquaintance" – was sent to prison, Justice Briana Hardwick wrote in her decision, adding that the land was in foreclosure at the time, and had on it "a vast assortment of items."

THE INSPECTIONS

A bylaw officer inspected the property the day before the sale was finalized and observed "a vast assortment of metal pieces, wood, old tires, old boats, furniture, and scrap auto parts," the judge said. A visit three weeks later found that the property had not been cleaned up. Both times, Hart was told he was in violation of the bylaw.

Roughly six weeks after Hart took possession, the bylaw officer conducted another inspection and "did not identify any cleanup efforts or changes, other than based on his observation, the amount of materials on the property had increased rather than decreased," the decision says.

At that time, the presence of "numerous derelict vehicles" and "several" RVs set up as residences was also found to run afoul of zoning regulations dictating the permitted use of the property.

A month later – in August of 2019 – the regional district received a complaint.

"The core of the complaint is that there were multiple families living at the property in unsanitary conditions and that a large amount of refuse had been regularly deposited on the property in recent months," the court documents say.

A month after that, another inspection was done.

"The property was largely in the same condition as it was on the last inspection. No cleanup had occurred and an excess of 20 derelict vehicles were present. Several recreational vehicles appeared to be occupied with the remainder of them appearing ready for occupancy," Hardwick wrote.

"A salvage operation was clearly ongoing with many items sorted and presented as if for sale."

In January of 2020, the regional district's board voted to take legal action and a court petition was filed in August of 2021.

THE RESPONSE

In response to the district's court filing, Hart alleged that bylaw officers had "manipulated and falsified" the photographic evidence they presented to the RDOS board, thus tainting the decision to take the case to court. Hart also said the RDOS had committed "institutional abuse" in the course of its dealings with him, the judge's decision says.

A letter written in May of 2022 and submitted to the court elaborated on Hart's claims.

"I have been unable to have peace in order to fulfill my dreams and desires with the property … that I purchased in 2019," it reads.

"I have tried to be reasonable but mistrust, misrepresentation, misjudgment, mishandling, mistakes, malfeasance, intimidation, false evidence, unattainable timelines and ignorance of rules and best practices by the RDOS management and bylaw officer have made it impossible to work with or trust the organization. Please help me. I do not want to lose everything or die fighting a tainted, uphill battle."

Hart, in the letter, proposed four courses of action for the court: to throw the case out entirely; to appoint a mediator of his choosing to resolve the dispute; that the RDOS loan him the money to help him build sheds and clean up the property that could be repaid with deductions from his taxes; or to order a judicial inquiry into the RDOS' "questionable" bylaw practices.

The judge declined to pursue any of these avenues because "those requests are simply outside of the jurisdiction of this court," she said.

THE DECISION

Ultimately, Hardwick found that Hart had run afoul of the "untidy and unsightly" bylaw, as well as zoning bylaws that prohibited the use of the property as a salvage yard and prohibited setting up residential RVs.

"In total, it has been slightly in excess of three-and-a-half- years that these issues have been live between the respondent and the petitioner. During this time, I am not satisfied that the respondent has made sufficient efforts to remediate the property," she wrote, ordering it to be brought into compliance.

The RDOS was asking for an order requiring the owner to clean up the property within 30 days. However, given that the order was made in January, the judge found the weather conditions would make that timeline unrealistic.

Hardwick gave Hart until Aug. 31 to complete the work.

 

 

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