RDN prohibits homeless camping in all Gabriola parks except Cox and 707 Community Parks

Sounder News

Wednesday, February 26 2020

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

The Regional District of Nanaimo has passed a bylaw which will prohibit overnight homeless camping in all RDN Parks on Gabriola - except for Cox Community Park and the 707 Community Park. March 11 update: South Road Community Park and Hyham Community Park are also on the exemption list.

The RDN bylaw does not apply to Sandwell, Gabriola Sands (Twin Beaches), or Drumbeg as they are Provincial Parks. Staff with the Ministry of Environment said, "Sandwell, Gabriola Sands, and Drumbeg provincial parks do not offer front-country camping; they are designated for day use only and by regulation are only available for picnicking and other daytime activities. Regulations state that a person must not camp in the frontcountry unless in a designated campsite or, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. the following day, enter or remain in a day use area. So camping by anyone in these parks is not permitted."

In a press release issued February 26, the RDN Parks Department said the Board has approved an update to the Park Use Regulations Bylaw 1801, which was last updated in 2009.

Along with the change to prohibit homeless camping in most of the Gabriola parks - the bylaw creates a total ban on smoking in all RDN parks, regulates cannabis consumption in parks, and opens the possibility of off-road vehicle use in some RDN parks (though not on Gabriola).

This bylaw comes as local governments deal with recent BC Supreme Court decisions regarding homeless camping in parks.

Due to the decision, local governments cannot have a blanket prohibition on homeless camping in parks, and, as such, the RDN could not prohibit homeless camping in every RDN park on Gabriola. 

Vanessa Craig, RDN Director for Electoral Area B (Gabriola, Mudge, DeCourcy), stated, “Homeless camping already occurs occasionally in some parks on Gabriola and elsewhere in the RDN, and we currently don’t have the ability to regulate it. The Province of BC does not have regulation for local jurisdictions to abide by, and, therefore, it’s a local government responsibility. This bylaw change allows the RDN to set limitations on where and when activities can occur. This brings our current bylaw into compliance with recent court decisions from the BC Supreme Court which indicate that a local government can’t impose blanket bans on homeless camping, but they can regulate it. Other areas have also changed their parks regulations to reflect these rulings, including the City of Abbotsford, the District of North Cowichan, and the City of Nanaimo. 

“I and the other RDN Directors will be following this issue closely.”

RDN Parks staff are due to meet with Gabriola Fire Chief Will Sprogis, RCMP Cst. Patti Smith, and BC Ambulance Service representatives to discuss the potential impacts on emergency services.

Craig said that “homeless camping is already occurring in RDN parks, although not frequently. Because we now have the ability to regulate homeless camping, we will be able to respond (through RDN bylaw) to complaints and to adjust the bylaw as necessary. This is not about allowing homeless camping in parks – the bylaw enables us to regulate an activity we previously couldn’t, and which we can’t prevent.

“I recognize this is a challenging issue and is one that many local governments will be addressing – how to balance meeting the rulings from the BC Supreme Court while maintaining our parks for outdoor recreation and enjoyment as well as preserving and protecting natural park features.”

The Regional Park Select Committee recommended the RDN Board approve updating Bylaw 1801.

In the staff report to the Regional Park Select Committee, RDN Staff note, “With the introduction of regulated homeless camping, readiness for additional homeless camping will also need to be taken into consideration. Homeless camping is generally not an issue in RDN Parks but if it were to be, there is currently no enforcement capacity to enforce these new park regulations.

“It is recommended that additional enforcement resources be put in place to assist the RDN in assessing and managing the transition to regulated and enforced homeless camping. Funding for a 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) bylaw enforcement officer would require an estimated $44,000 per year. Site cleanup costs caused by homeless camping will be monitored in 2020 to determine if future changes to park operating budgets need to be made. Expenditures related to site cleanup would be charged to the parks service area in which the cleanup takes place, i.e. regional parks or electoral area community parks.”

In Bylaw 1801, homeless camping is prohibited in 77 per cent of RDN parks including parks that are well-developed and well-used; too small to keep campers separate from regular park users or park neighbours; and parks acquired as a conservation area. 

Homeless camping is also prohibited on all regional and community trails and paths and at all RDN-managed water accesses.

In parks where camping is not prohibited, a homeless person may only camp in a park between 7:00 p.m. and 9: 00 a.m., and must dismantle any shelter erected, and must take all personal possessions with them.

A homeless person may not camp:

- within 30 m of neighbouring residential property;

- within 30 m of park buildings, toilets, shelters, playgrounds, picnic tables, benches, garbage cans, maintained fields or other organized play spaces;

- within 30 m of internal trails, roads, bridges, or in parking lots or demarcated and tended areas of vegetative plantings; or

- in a conservation zone

Both of the community parks which are approved for overnight homeless camping are zoned by the Islands Trust as P2 (Passive).

Permitted Principal Uses in the P2 zoning are:

- passive outdoor recreational activities, including walking, hiking, and nature appreciation

- special events under permit by the Regional District of Nanaimo

Islands Trust staff were contacted to ask what impact the RDN bylaw would have on Cox and the 707.

Staff said zoning doesn’t have to have “camping” as a listed permitted use in order for this type of camping to be permitted in any public park in BC regardless of zoning.

“Court cases trump zoning and this is one of those instances.”

Kees Langeries, Island Trustee, said he could only speak on his own behalf, not the Gabriola Local Trust Committee (LTC) or the Islands Trust.

“The LTC regulates what uses may occur in a park and the RDN manages those uses. The current LTC bylaws make no provision for homeless camping in parks. To address camping in parks by homeless people, I believe the community, the RDN...and the LTC need to work together to develop a reasonable solution that balances the needs of the homeless and the general public’s use of parks. Any solution would need to include possible amendments to LTC Land Use Bylaws authorizing such use.”

Scott Colbourne, Gabriola Island Trustee said, “My understanding is that the Supreme Court of BC ruling overrides Islands Trust zoning when it comes to the rights of homeless people to access public spaces, and I’m confident that we as a community can sort out what that will mean for island parks. Longer term, the Supreme Court made the ruling mostly because Liberal and Conservative senior governments, for decades, have abdicated their responsibility to combat poverty and systemic shortages in rental and affordable housing. This week, the Gabriola Local Trust Committee joined the Regional District of Nanaimo and other local governments in a $125,000 grant application to fund a Poverty Reduction Strategy and Action Plan. We also voted to advance Gabriola’s priority project, the Housing Options and Impacts Review, which seeks to increase safe and secure housing opportunities while reducing our collective impact on the environment. I urge islanders concerned about the symptoms of inequality to get involved in these local solutions and to demand more support from the federal and provincial governments.”

The City of Nanaimo has its own version of the bylaw, in which it prohibits homeless camping in six parks within the City, including Mafeo Sutton Park.

Have an opinion on this issue? Write a letter to the editor and email derek@soundernews.com.