Victoria asks court if Beacon Hill Park can be used for temporary sheltering

The City of Victoria has filed a petition with the B.C. Supreme Court asking the court to clarify whether Beacon Hill Park can be used for temporary sheltering by people without homes.

The city initially defended itself against a lawsuit by the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, which alleged the city violated the park trust by allowing 24/7 sheltering in the park during the pandemic. In January, the city reversed course and said it planned to seek direction from the court. The petition was filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday.

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The city is asking the court to clarify: “Can the land known as Beacon Hill Park, held in trust by the City of Victoria, be used by persons experiencing homelessness for temporary sheltering?”

Mayor Lisa Helps stressed the petition is not directed at people currently camping in the park, who are expected to be offered indoor spaces by the end of March if the city and province meet the deadline they’ve set.

The city wants clarification from the court on whether the park is a suitable place to shelter, including overnight.

“That’s never been asked of the court and we don’t have a clear answer, and with the increase in the opinions about it, we thought it would be a good idea to ask the court for an answer,” Helps said.

The court will decide who is eligible to make submissions. The city is not taking a position.

Beacon Hill Park has been governed by a trust since being transferred to the city by the province in 1882. The trust outlines the conditions under which the city was given the land for the park, including that it be maintained “for the use, recreation and enjoyment of the public.”

The Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society have pointed to the trust as grounds to prohibit sheltering in the park, saying it violates the terms.

The city says the 1882 Crown grant and the Public Parks Act of 1876 do not identify all potential uses of the park and it’s seeking clarification from the court on how it should manage and operate the park under the trust.

Roy Fletcher, president of the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, said he was happy to hear the city had filed its petition.

He was initially worried the city might pose a complicated question, but he was glad to see an “excellent question” to get to the heart of the matter.

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.

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