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Vernon considers allowing people to live in RVs on agricultural land

A staff recommendation to allow the RVs comes after a Vernon couple’s lengthy battle with the city over their living arrangement
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A petition to allow a Vernon family to live on a farm in a fifth wheel has garnered 4,121 signatures as of Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. (change.org photo)

The City of Vernon is considering allowing people to live in RVs on Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) property, following a dispute with residents who were doing so “unlawfully” under the current regulations.

At its next meeting Monday, Nov. 27, Vernon council will consider bylaw amendments that would allow the provincial ALR Use Regulation to govern all uses on these lands, including primary dwellings, secondary suites, accessory dwellings and accessory buildings.

Staff are recommending that council opt not to impose further regulations on residential uses beyond what is stipulated by the Use Regulation and provincial legislation. The recommendation would see the city refrain from imposing extra restrictions or conditions of use and allow landowners to use RVs or other vehicles on ALR land without local constraints.

If the recommendation is supported by council, it would signal a victory for Lee and Sondra Watkins, who went public with their battle with the city to keep living in their RV on a four-acre family property in the Blue Jay neighbourhood of Vernon. The Watkins had been talking with the city to extend their stay in the RV as long as possible, but started receiving fines from bylaw over the last several months.

“We wish to continue to fight this for many other properties and people in the same situation,” the Watkins said in a change.org petition that has garnered more than 5,300 signatures since it was launched on Oct. 12.

Staff note this approach would allow for simplicity, as landowners and residents would mainly consult provincial regulations and not the city; it also would provide flexibility to landowners to determine residential use forms and locations on their property.

Affordability, staff say, is another strength to the suggested approach, as alternative dwellings like RVs could offer more affordable housing options and potentially ease housing shortages.

Staff note there would also be a reduction in bureaucracy, as fewer local regulations could lead to less administrative complexity and a quicker path to housing solutions.

There would be reduced compliance enforcement, too, as that would largely fall under the Agricultural Land Commission’s purview, though staff note city bylaws such as the Good Neighbour Bylaw would still apply and require bylaw officer enforcement.

“Amendments to provincial legislation would automatically apply within the City, ensuring expediency for landowners without burdening City resources,” staff note.

In the report to council, staff highlight a few downsides to the recommended approach, starting with a lack of local control when it comes to addressing local concerns like environmental impact, aesthetics and community character. There could also be land use conflicts between residential use and agricultural operations due to the absence of local regulations, and staff also note RVs might not offer stable long-term housing solutions.

Speaking to The Morning Star Friday, Lee Watkins said he and his wife are “very pleased to see that there have been some results from putting a little bit of pressure on city council” as signalled by the staff recommendation to permit their living situation on ALR land.

“It’s just nice to see that Vernon (staff) are listening to the community and listening to people when they speak up a little bit.”

Lee said he wants to make it clear that “we have nothing against city council, we have nothing against the mayor,” but while bylaw officers were “just doing their job” when issuing the fines, the city could have shown more “compassion and understanding.” He explains the issuing of fines has ramped up over the course of the dispute; at first fines were issued once a month starting at the end of June. But then in October, after the Watkins’ plans to move to a property in Armstrong fell through, the fines started being issued once a week. In November, the fines have been coming twice a week.

The Watkins paid the first two fines but still have 10 outstanding, totalling about $2,700.

Lee hopes the fines will be waived if council decides to go with the recommended option on Monday, but if that doesn’t happen, he proposes a unique alternative.

“We are happy to pay these fines, but if I could suggest, instead of paying bylaw for the $2,700 that we owe, you name a foundation or a charity and we will donate that amount to that charity,” Lee proposed. “I would prefer (the money) to go to a good cause, something important within this community that we love, that is so important to us.”

Council may opt to go in a different direction on Monday. Under the recommended option in the report, staff note unregulated use could lead to an increase in RVs which could affect the landscape and possibly reduce agricultural land availability, or influence property values. The absence of local oversight could also raise issues about living standards in RVs, particularly in extreme weather conditions. The city previously said the Watkins’ living arrangement was untenable because RVs do not comply with BC Building Code regulations and standards.

Council could choose to impose additional regulations that go beyond what is set out in the Use Regulation and provincial legislation. Going in this direction would mean revising a zoning bylaw to allow an accessory dwelling unit and authorize the use of RVs as accommodation on ALR lands “under specific conditions.” A framework would be designed to ensure compliance with conditions and guidelines aimed at reducing impacts on neighbouring properties and ensuring the health and safety of occupants. The regulations would seek to balance accommodation flexibility with the primary agricultural use of the land, reduction of land use conflicts, emergency services access and safety.

Council could also decide to prohibit RVs as a residential use on ALR land, which staff note would ensure farming is the primary use of agricultural land but would limit options for affordable housing on those lands and may require “significant resources for monitoring and enforcement.”

Another option is to allow the RVs on a case-by-case basis using temporary use permits, which are allowed under the Local Government Act for up to a three-year period with the option for an additional three-year extension. Staff note this would be a quicker way to address specific housing needs or situations, but there are also enforcement challenges and the “risk of perceived unfairness or inconsistency in decision-making.” This would appear to provide a solution for people like the Watkins, who only intend to live in their RV for “two to three years” before finding another place to live, Lee said.

Staff are supporting the first option because it aligns with the province’s strategic shift to accelerate more housing options for people in need, at a time when housing is a key issue across B.C.

“They have introduced significant legislation targeting a more inclusionary path for the provision of housing as well as instructing municipalities to streamline permitting processes,” the report states. “The ability for property owners in the ALR to achieve additional dwelling units is consistent with this strategy including the use of RVs as dwelling units.”

The Watkins have had an Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) officer out to their family’s property who, after an assessment, confirmed they were using the property agriculturally because they had farm animals on the property, and that they otherwise met all of the ALC’s requirements, Lee said.

In July 2021, the province introduced new legislation to enhance housing flexibility within the ALR, with the goal of supporting both farmers and non-farmers in sustaining their families and businesses. As of the end of 2021, the Use Regulation allows property owners to have an additional residence on their property without needing to apply to the ALC. The City of Vernon’s zoning bylaw was not updated following these provincial changes, and so the agricultural zones currently prohibit additional residences.

Lee says he hopes council will go with the recommended option, saying it would make the situation “as easy as it can be to just align ALR and the province regulations with our municipal zoning bylaws.”

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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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