Original Published 12:51 Apr 16, 2022

By Rachelle Stein-Wotten, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The electoral area services committee unanimously voted in favour of prohibiting homeless camping in Gabriola’s 707 Community Park, but not before some concerns were raised about the value of imposing park-by-park prohibitions.

Once passed by the Regional District of Nanaimo board of directors, the 707 Community Park would join a list of 77 parks, including 25 in Electoral Area B (Gabriola, Mudge, DeCourcy), listed in the regional district’s park use regulation bylaw. 

A temporary ban on homeless camping in the park was imposed by the board in April 2020. That temporary ban came in place over wildfire concerns. Since then, a fuel management prescription was completed in the park, confirming the high fire risk in the densely vegetated area, leading to a recommendation from the fuel prescription consultant, Diamond Head Consulting, that sleeping and sheltering in the park should be banned either permanently or seasonally.

Paul Giffin, chair of the Gabriola Fire Protect Improvement District Office of Trustees, wrote on behalf of trustees in favour of a full moratorium on camping in the park.

The park lacks a management plan to address the fuel load, Giffin wrote. “The 707 has no water sources, poor access for fire trucks and no enforcement by the RDN,” adding the fire department’s one water source in the park was Coats Marsh, “which was drained down by RDN park staff due to a beaver dam … which puts the 65 homes that directly border this park in imminent danger should a fire start.”

Giffin added a large fire in the park has the potential to cut off North and South roads, the main evacuation routes for two-thirds of the population.

The RDN staff report accompanying the recommendation says no prohibition or even a seasonal prohibition would require increasing the Area B community parks budget by $10,000-20,000 to hire a contractor to patrol the 1,052-acre (425.7 ha) park. 

Some electoral area directors struggled with the process of adding parks to the prohibited list on a case-by-case basis. Lehann Wallace, director for Electoral Area F (Englishman River, San Pareil, French Creek, Little Qualicum & Dashwood), suggested all parks in the regional district have a wildfire risk associated with unauthorized sleeping and sheltering.

“I just think it’s not good management that we are making one-off exceptions,” Wallace said. “When this bylaw was adopted there was no such this as a heat dome on Vancouver Island, and so my concern is that we’re making an exception … but there are many other parks that should also be added. I just don’t understand the value of having a bylaw that you need to add individual parcels to.”

RDN parks staff said the regional district’s parklands are not frequently used for homeless camping, and that it seems to happen more often on private and Crown lands. While in the last five years, RDN staff say they only know of one instance where someone was camping in the 707, Area B Director Vanessa Craig stressed imposing the ban now is a proactive move. 

“I’ve gone through the steps to show that this park is indeed a significant fire risk,” Craig said. “The board supported putting in the grant applications and the work all along the way. I don’t think this is unusual support for a specific area.”

The BC Supreme Court has ruled that bylaws prohibiting people experiencing homelessness from sleeping in public places violates their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but some local governments have placed prohibitions in specific locations. The RDN’s parks use bylaw allows homeless camping in parks not listed in Schedule B of the bylaw between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. and requires all shelters to be dismantled and personal possessions and refuse removed.

Wallace indicated plans to work with staff to bring a motion forward in future with regard to a holistic approach to mitigating risks of homeless camping in parks during high fire season.

This item reprinted with permission from Gabriola Sounder, Gabriola, British Columbia