Judge rules private landowners can’t block public access to B.C. lake

Judge rules private landowners can’t block public access to B.C. lake

The Nicola Valley ranch’s position was that it owned Stoney Lake and Minnie Lake

  • Dec. 8, 2018 12:10 p.m.

–– Kamloops This Week

People in a packed Kamloops courtroom broke out in applause on Friday as a B.C. Supreme Court judge delivered a judgment described as decades in the making, ruling all lakes are public property and prohibiting private landowners from restricting access to them.

The decision was the culmination of a protracted trial spanning six years, pitting a wealthy private ranch — the Douglas Lake Cattle Company, owned by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke (husband of a Walmart heir and owner of the Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche, Arsenal and other professional sports franchises) — against the B.C. government and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club in a fight over access to two small fishing lakes.

The Nicola Valley ranch’s position was that it owned Stoney Lake and Minnie Lake because the bodies of water are surrounded by private property and alterations to the lakes had been made by the company. The ranch also claimed ownership of fish in the lakes by virtue of the fact it kept them stocked.

The fish and game club, on the other hand, argued B.C. laws don’t allow private landowners to control bodies of water or the fish inside them.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Joel Groves ruled against the ranch. He determined roads in the area of the lakes that had been claimed as the property of the ranch were actually public. Groves also said the Douglas Lake Cattle Company may have to remove dams it has constructed to increase the size of some lakes, which resulted in flooded roads.

Groves ruled the ranch cannot lawfully block access to either lake, but he did place some limits on the actions of anglers, ordering catch-and-release fishing on both of the lakes.

“It would be nonsensical for a government to retain the rights to a lake if, by virtue of a single owner purchasing all the land surrounding a lake, that owner could prohibit public use or ownership of the lake,” Groves said in his ruling.

“It only makes sense that government would have retained the ownership of bodies of water, lakes, with the intention of the public being allowed to access water they retained.”

But, Groves added, there are limits.

“By access, I am not suggesting that there exists a right to motorboat or other vehicular access to bodies of water, but it only makes sense that the government’s intention in retaining ownership of lakes means that there is public access, as determined and regulated by government, to these lakes,” he said.

In his judgment, Groves also called out the provincial government for decades of inaction despite findings by provincial officials as far back as 1996 that the ranch’s actions were illegal.

“Yet the province did not respond to this apparent unlawful act. In fact, for over 20 years, it did nothing,” Groves said.

“Over 20 years, a privately held corporation, owning a large swath of land, prohibited the public from driving on a public road and the province did nothing. This is most unfortunate. … The province has continuously failed the citizens of British Columbia.”

Groves also issued a five-page epilogue imploring the government to change its laws and regulate access to address issues surrounding ownership and use of lakes and other Crown land. Failing to do so, he said, could lead to a wave of expensive litigation.

“First off, look at the Trespass Act. Is that really what you intend in today’s world?” Groves said. “Secondly, if you own the lakes of the province, which you do, can you not regulate access? There really is no point to ownership, otherwise.”

As Groves stood up to leave the courtroom — packed with about 75 spectators — supporters of the fish and game club broke out in applause.

Douglas Lake Cattle Company ranch manager Joe Gardner was not one of those celebrating.

“I think I want to read it and think about it,” he said of Groves’ decision. “I’ve got no comment other than that.”

Speaking to reporters outside court, Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club spokesman Rick McGowan called the decision “a win” for his organization, but not the end of the fight.

“It’s good for future litigation,” he said, noting he has been involved in the battle for lake access for 30 years.

Douglas Lake Cattle Company has not indicated whether it intends to appeal Groves’ decision.

Tim Petruk, Kamloops This Week

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The wind has been gusting Friday, March 5 in Williams Lake with the risk of a thunderstorm in the forecast for later in the afternoon. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
More than 500 customers in Cariboo without power, risk of thunderstorm Friday afternoon

The BC Hydro map is adding more power outages as the afternoon unfolds

The two suspects arrested south of 150 Mile House Tuesday, March 2, following a high-speed chase with the RCMP have been charged. (Will Roberts photo)
High-speed chase suspects charged, remain in custody after arrest south of Williams Lake

John Craig and Maggie M. Higgott appeared in Williams Lake Provincial Court March 4

Interior Health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5. (Black Press Files)
Interior Health reports 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5

Over 300,000 vaccine doses have been administered provincewide.

Many members of the Williams Lake Cross Country Ski Club (pictured) have teamed up with the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society to host a free ski in celebration of World Water Day. (Patrick Davies photo - Black Press Media)
Conservation society, cross country ski club, celebrate World Water Day with free ski March 6

The free ski will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 6 at Bull Mountain

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Most Read