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HOUSING CRISIS: Vernon couple wins fight with city to live in RV on family property

This photo shows an RV, horses and dogs owned by Vernon resident Lee Watkins.
This photo shows an RV, horses and dogs owned by Vernon resident Lee Watkins.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/ Lee Watkins

A Vernon couple, who went public when the city told them they couldn’t live in an RV on their parents’ acreage, got some life changing news today.

Sondra and Lee Watkins live in an RV on the agricultural land reserve within the city limits, and have been battling the city for 18 months for permission to stay there. There was a major break at a city council meeting today, Nov. 27, when staff and council debated changing RV regulations in agricultural land zones.

“It was a 50-minute conversation between councillors, the mayor and staff, the debate kept going back and forth,” Lee said. “It was down to the wire, we were physically sitting in there and as the debate went on we thought it might not go in our favour.”

In 2022, the Watkins’ bought an RV and moved it onto Sondra’s parent’s property after the house they were renting was put up for sale. They brought along their large animals too. They planned to keeping working at their businesses to save up for a down payment for a house. Shortly after they moved in, a neighbour sent a complaint about them living there to the bylaw department.

Since then the couple was told by bylaw numerous times to leave the property as it was against city regulations to live in a recreational vehicle. Lee kept petitioning and writing letters and the city kept giving him fines that have added up to $2,700.

The Agricultural Land Commission and Technical Safety officers went to the property in late summer this year and found the living situation compliant with their provincial rules, but living in an RV is not in accordance to the city’s zoning bylaw.

At a council meeting today, staff presented council with several options for bylaw amendments regarding RV dwelling in agricultural zones.

The first was to update the city’s zoning bylaws to align with the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve use regulations and for the city to stop applying additional regulations in these areas.

“The mayor and one councillor really seemed to have it out for us, presenting issues and concerns around health and safety, and that more time was needed to decide,” Lee said. “The rest of the council went up to bat for us, and in the last two minutes there was a majority vote to go with the first option one and align with ALR, so we won.”

Other options were to develop new regulations to authorize the use of RVs as accommodation on ALR lands but only under specific conditions, to prohibit RVs altogether, or to allow them with temporary use permits.

The Watkin’s will no longer have to worry about breaking the rules and were celebrating the decision with family after the council meeting.

“We feel amazing, it was a shock, we are out celebrating with our moms now,” Lee said. “There is a weight off the shoulders, a sigh of relief, its emotional. No more bylaw or writing letters and no more (fines). To know we can go to the farm and live with our animals in peace.” 

It isn’t clear yet whether the accumulated property fines will be waived by the city.

READ MORE: Why you better get used to living with rats in Kamloops, Okanagan

The Agricultural Land Commission oversees the use of farmland within the agricultural land reserve. Since its establishment in 2019 the regulatory framework has undergone changes posing challenges for local governments to align their local regulations.

In 2021, BC introduced new legislation to increase housing flexibility within the agricultural land reserve to support farmers and non-farmers and their families by allowing property owners to have another residence on their land without having to apply to the commission.

READ MORE: The Okanagan’s forgotten grasslands

The commission provides a framework for farm uses that are not prohibited by the local governments but it also gives those governments flexibility to add more regulations. Vernon’s zoning bylaw was not updated following the changes so the agricultural zones currently prohibit additional residences.

Go here to read a city report regarding the challenges around using RVs as dwelling units.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Ainslie or call 250-819-6089 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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