Jack Knox: Lochside outhouse is back, but bigger question remains: Who pays for public loos?

The Lochside porta potty is back, and trail users are relieved, as it were.

Sunday, I wrote about a minor brouhaha over a portable toilet that had been removed from the roadside south of Michell’s Farm Market in Central Saanich.

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The fuss came down to a jurisdictional squabble, albeit one whose finer points might have been lost on those walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers who, having expected to find the outhouse still in place, were left dancing the Gotta-Pee Polka.

Anyhow, a new porta potty appeared at the same spot Thursday. She’s a real beauty, too: roomier, more accessible, full Purell dispenser. (No TV, but mustn’t grumble.)

It’s only a temporary solution, but still one that immediately attracted a steady stream (as it were) of runners and riders who took to it like chickadees to a new birdfeeder.

“As soon as it was there, there were people using it,” says Tom Michell. The farmer is grateful, as it means he no longer has to clean up after those who, with nowhere else to go, go anyway. The whole reason the Capital Regional District erected the facility several years ago was that area farmers were fed up with hordes of Lochside Trail users ducking into their fields or, in the Michells’ case, the washroom in the farm market.

It’s not the biggest problem in the world, but does lead to a broader issue that has become more acute during the pandemic: Whose responsibility is it to provide public washrooms?

Over the years, governments have tended to, um, wash their hands of that burden.

“Canada relies heavily on publicly accessible toilets — which are privately owned by businesses and open to customers — rather than truly public toilets, which are on the street, paid for by taxes, and open to everyone,” Lezlie Lowe, the author of the book No Place To Go, wrote in The Walrus this year.

Those malls, department stores, hotels et al aren’t exactly thrilled about maintaining washrooms for non-customers, though. They’re on the hook for everything from toilet paper to vandalism. Since B.C. abolished pay toilets in 1975 (some readers might remember desperately fishing for a dime at Woodward’s), they just have to eat the expense.

Occasionally, the pendulum swings the other way, the taxpayer paying for the customer: A dozen years ago, responding to a plague of drunks peeing in downtown doorways after bar-closing, the City of Victoria erected outdoor urinals. (Alas, it abandoned a much-ballyhooed proposal for pop-up versions that would have slowly risen from the sidewalks each night like Cold War nuclear missiles emerging from their Nebraska cornfield silos.)

In any case, the pandemic’s arrival squeezed the public’s options. Coffee shops and gas stations locked their lavs. In March, the Town of Sidney felt compelled to set up a “critical supply chain rest stop” for long-haul truckers. When the Greater Victoria Public Library’s dozen branches closed, so did their unofficial reading rooms.

COVID required everyone to grope through new territory. Saanich kept its year-round public toilets open, but decided not to deploy the portable johns that it usually installs from May to October, saying it couldn’t maintain deep-cleaning protocols. Victoria, by contrast, actually added portable washrooms in parks where homeless people shelter. (FYI, all of Victoria’s two dozen public toilets are open, save for those at Ross Bay Cemetery and Holland Point, which get mothballed during the winter when the pipes might freeze.)

The Lochside porta potty disappeared as COVID arrived, though there was more behind the decision than pandemic safety. The CRD’s position is that the outhouse was always supposed to be temporary. It didn’t even sit on CRD land, but on municipal property. It was always the plan to remove the outhouse after permanent trailside facilities were built elsewhere, including a pit toilet that opened at Saanich’s Fowler Park, four kilometres to the south, in September.

Central Saanich Coun. Niall Paltiel replied that no, the CRD couldn’t just take away a facility to which users of the busy trail had grown ­accustomed.

It was Central Saanich that decided Monday to bring in the new porta potty to provide temporary (ahem) relief while the CRD and municipality negotiate the matter. Can’t just leave trail users with their legs crossed while governments look for a more permanent solution, Paltiel said.

That decision was much appreciated by a succession of runners and cyclists who, while out in Friday’s glorious sunshine, lined up for the outhouse. They spoke of needing more, not fewer, facilities. As it is, they said they know exactly how far they have to hang on between restrooms. “I ride to Sidney regularly and I have every spot marked out,” said 64-year-old cyclist Brian Page after emerging from the new loo. And yes, this one is needed, no matter who pays for it.

Like the good book says: Let my people go.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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