VERNON - The North Okanagan Regional District is investigating complaints about a group of fruit pickers who, according to neighbours, lived in a condemned building this summer.
The house, located at an orchard on Pleasant Valley Road in Vernon’s BX area, is the subject of a Do Not Occupy order issued by the regional district due to building code infractions.
The occupancy issue came to light after a loud party at the house and subsequent vehicle crash prompted neighbours Chris and Dannielle Vander Molen to call 911 and alert the authorities over the weekend. They say the incident was the worst they have witnessed, although they have had ongoing problems with the orchard for the past few years.
The Vander Molens are concerned that the pickers, who they believe were from Eastern Canada, were living in the house despite the Do Not Occupy Order.
“The living conditions are absolutely disgusting,” Dannielle says.
The Vander Molens have complained to the property owner, police, and the regional district, but feel nothing is being done. Most of the pickers left this week, but the Vander Molens are hoping to avoid similar issues next year.
"The house should be boarded up," Chris says.
The district’s chief administrative officer David Sewell says they are working with the orchard owner to ensure no one occupies the building.
“Ultimately, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to ensure the Do Not Occupy Order is adhered to,” Sewell says.
If the order is not followed, Sewell says it’s possible the regional district could issue fines or place a notice on title, however they would prefer to work with the property owner towards compliance. Sewell points out that aspects of the issue, such as the vehicle crash and farmworker housing, are not under the jurisdiction of the regional district. Efforts to reach the RCMP to confirm the bus crash is under investigation have not been successful.
Similar concerns and frustrations have been expressed this summer by Kelowna residents living near an orchard on Scharf Road where witnesses say there are no toilets or showers. In early August, a naked migrant worker from Brazil was arrested after attempting to kick down a nearby resident's front door. Nothing so extreme has happened to the Vander Molens, however they are concerned for their safety and wellbeing. On Saturday night, Sept. 2, there was a large, raucous party at the house, which is located just behind their home. Around 10:30 p.m. a group of people from the party took an A1 Rental bus down the street and crashed it into the ditch near Stickle Road, according to the Vander Molens, who have video of the bus leaving the property.
“Everybody likes to have fun, there’s nothing wrong with having a party, but our kids are trying to sleep. This (crash) was not a minor incident,” Chris says, noting they were kept up until 4 a.m.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Sept. 6, property owner Dave Sundher declined an interview. Before hanging up, he said the house was abandoned and no one was living there.
B.C. Fruit Growers Association vice-president Pinder Dhaliwal is aware of recent media coverage about the property, but couldn’t comment in detail about the specific incident.
“If it (house) is banned for living in, those rules and regulations should be followed,” he says.
Under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, employers undergo a rigorous housing inspection before being approved to receive workers from outside the country, Dhaliwal says. That program is specific to migrant workers though, and Dhaliwal says pickers from Canada fall under a completely different set of rules. While housing is a requirement for migrant workers, it’s not for Canadians. Many French Canadian students doing the Okanagan picking circuit live in tents, Dhaliwal says, while local farm workers typically take care of their own housing. If an employer does choose to provide housing for Canadian pickers, Dhaliwal says it must be “suitable for living.”
It remains unclear if the derelict house was being offered as housing, or if the pickers simply set up there of their own accord. None of them could be found on the property Wednesday, having packed up and left on Monday according to the Vander Molens.
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