City of Victoria to ask court whether 24/7 camping in Beacon Hill violates trust

Facing a lawsuit over 24/7 sheltering in Beacon Hill Park, the City of Victoria has decided to ask the court to rule on whether allowing sheltering violates the terms of the park trust.

The Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society filed a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court in December, alleging the city violated the trust by allowing people without homes to shelter in the park during the pandemic. While the city initially defended itself against the suit, it has now reversed course and plans to seek direction from the court.

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“The city agrees that it is an issue of sufficient importance to justify seeking the court’s opinion on,” city spokesman Bill Eisenhauer said in a statement.

The city believes the current suit is “procedurally flawed” and a new proceeding is needed to ask the court to clarify terms of the trust, Eisenhauer said. The city last sought direction from the court related to Beacon Hill Park in 1998, asking whether any part of the park could lawfully be used for short-term festival events. The court said no in that case.

Eisenhauer said the city expects the new proceeding will begin within a month, and everyone with an interest in the park will have an opportunity to make submissions to the court.

“This is another reason why this proceeding is preferable to the claim started by Friends of Beacon Hill Park,” he said.

Roy Fletcher, president of Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, said the group is “quite happy,” but plans to keep the civil suit active in case it’s disappointed in how the city poses the question to the court or who submits arguments.

Eisenhauer said lawyers are working on the exact question or questions, but the issue will be whether sheltering by people experiencing homelessness contravenes the terms of the trust.

Victoria council has said it hopes to help everyone sheltering in parks move indoors by March 31.

It’s unlikely the court will rule on the question by then, but even if everyone moves out of the park, direction from the court will be relevant in future, said lawyer John Alexander, who is representing the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society.

“This homelessness problem is not going away by the end of March,” he said. “And whether everyone will be out from the park is unlikely and if they were, whether that means no one would ever be back is also unlikely.”

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