Victoria city council voted Thursday to temporarily ban camping in Central Park following flooding last month that forced people without homes to vacate the site.
As well, councillors asked staff to draft bylaw changes that will prohibit camping in areas of any park where there is a high risk of flooding or other environmental hazards, such as falling trees.
Thomas Soulliere, director of parks, recreation and facilities, said the aim is to prevent the “heartbreaking” situation that occurred in Central Park before Christmas, where people were flooded out in the middle of a cold night.
City staff had recommended a permanent ban on camping in Central Park given the flood risks there and the lack of a permanent public washroom. But councillors were reluctant to go that far.
Instead, they agreed to revisit the issue in March when the city hopes to end around-the-clock camping in parks — providing that people have been offered a place indoors.
If that happens, the city would resume enforcement of its camping bylaw, which permits people to set up tents in certain parks from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and requires them to pack up their belongings each morning.
Coun. Ben Isitt said he could support a temporary camping ban in Central Park given that many of the campers who were flooded out have moved to a camp in the nearby parking lot at Royal Athletic Park.
But he expressed concern that making the ban permanent would increase pressure to prohibit camping in other large parks. “And suddenly we have a situation where the only place that people can shelter themselves is in doorways downtown,” he said.
Coun. Jeremy Loveday, who used to live across the street from Central Park, agreed on the need for a temporary ban, but said the park seemed a suitable place to allow overnight camping for people without homes.
“I will support this today, but I do have hesitancy on making that a permanent change,” he said.
Central Park is currently closed for remediation, but the city expects to reopen hardscape surfaces by the end of the month.
Soulliere said that prior to the flood, the city was spending $22,000 a month to maintain four portable toilets, a hand-washing station, along with daily waste-collection sites, security and hazard inspections in the park.
The North Park Neighbourhood Association has called for a ban on camping in Central Park for many of the same reasons cited by city staff.
“It is also the only green space for a lot of people who are low-income apartment dwellers who not only don’t have backyards of their own, but don’t have the means to go to parks and other neighbourhoods or access often paid recreation,” said Sarah Murray, the association’s executive director.
As well, she said the North Park neighbourhood will be doing its bit to help if Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre reopens as a temporary housing site and the parking lot at Royal Athletic Park is used for 30 homes built from shipping containers.
“That is accommodating more than our fair share,” Murray said. “And we would like to see Central Park taken off the list permanently.”