B.C. homeowner fined
B.C. homeowner fined $5,200 for growing cucumbers, plans suit
Len Gratto on his property in Mission on Saturday, January 08, 2011. Len Gratto is ready to join an "imminent class action" law suit against Mission, for hitting him with a 5,200 grow op inspection fee. The 67 year old says he and his wife were growing cucumbers in the basement, he never grew pot, and he and many other Mission residents are being unfairly searched and fined.
Photograph by: Les Bazso, PNG
VANCOUVER — Len Gratto says there's no way he is paying a $5,200 fine to Mission, B.C., for growing cucumbers in his basement.
Gratto — who has lived in the home for 30 years — says he's raring to join an imminent class-action lawsuit attacking the municipality's grow-op bylaw inspections. A number of citizens, led by Stacy Gowanlock, allege their homes were illegally searched for marijuana grow-ops resulting in them being slapped with fees and repair orders costing upward of $10,000 — all on questionable evidence.
Gratto, 67, says he's never grown pot, but "laughable" evidence against him consists of pictures of some "dirt" on the basement wall and "a furnace pipe going up into the chimney, where it should be."
"It's upsetting they can do this," Gratto said. "We were growing cucumbers in the basement because they wouldn't take outside."
Gowanlock said he was searched in 2009 and hit with thousands in fees and repair orders despite never growing pot in his home. A lawyer could be filing his civil suit within days, he said.
"I'm going to be the one that steps forward," Gowanlock said. "It's the whole process. You're violating people's rights."
In a move that could potentially alter the landscape of drug enforcement in B.C., the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says it will join the battle against Mission, widening the focus into a region-wide challenge to "home grow-op bylaws."
Grow-op bylaw programs, which are based on provincial legislation, allow municipal inspectors to enter homes with abnormally high hydro usage — about 93 kilowatts per day or more — and look for evidence of illegal marijuana grow-ops for public safety reasons.
Inspectors don't have to find grow-ops, but if they find residual evidence, such as high mould readings, they levy search fees and order repairs. If homeowners don't comply, homes are tagged under the bylaw and effectively condemned as unsafe, and unsellable.
According to proponents, the bylaws have been phenomenally successful in driving pot production out of B.C.'s Lower Mainland.
In mid-December, the BCCLA's Micheal Vonn led a delegation to Mission's city council, warning grounds for a class-action suit are strong and searches are "putting innocent people under horrible duress."
David Eby, also of the BCCLA, says council was not receptive and has not responded. Even if the promised citizen-led action against Mission fell apart, the BCCLA would then likely initiate its own case.
"Our concern is the program is very poorly run, and there is no due process around these massive fines," Eby said.
Mission chief administrative officer Glen Robertson said he would not comment on the allegations or threat of litigation.
Documents released to the Vancouver Province under freedom-of-information law show Mission has drawn $1.43 million in revenue from Public Safety Inspection Team searches since 2008.
From 2008 to 2010, there were 362 searches. In 177 cases, residents were found in contravention of the bylaw and there were an additionally 98 RCMP grow-op inspections.
Including both RCMP and PSIT searches, inspection fees of $5,200 were levied 275 times.
Mission says its inspection program is revenue-neutral; fees include funding for the RCMP, who monitor searches from the sidelines.
Critics such as Gowanlock charge Mission's inspection-funding scheme amounts to a "cash grab."
Coun. Jenny Stevens says she initially supported the program, but now believes about half of homeowners inspected are innocent.
"My biggest worry is about 50 per cent of these people were subjected to embarrassment and innuendo," she said. "I'm very concerned about the threat of litigation . . ."
Mission Mayor James Atebe was unavailable for comment but suggested in a report last November that he strongly supported the inspection program but was willing to improve it.
"I don't want to lose the tool because it's imperfect," Atebe said. "Also, I don't want to keep the tool if it's encroaching on people's rights."
Another current class-action suit against municipal grow-op bylaws is currently unfolding in Coquitlam, B.C.
Read more: http://www.theprovince.com/news/home...#ixzz1Ag203miU
Re: B.C. homeowner fined
B.C. grow-op inspections 'cheat the system'
Last Updated: Monday, January 10, 2011 | 7:00 PM PT Comments5Recommend4
Stacy Gowanlock plans to be part of a class action lawsuit attempt to stop expensive municipal inspections for suspected grow-ops in homes with unusually high hydro use. (CBC) Some homeowners in Mission, B.C., are planning a class action lawsuit to battle municipal inspections intended to find marijuana grow-ops, but that often result in nothing but a big inspection bill.
Provincial legislation empowers municipal inspectors to enter homes with unusually high hydro use and look for evidence of a marijuana grow-op. But the process is hit and miss.
When inspectors searched Stacy Gowanlock's home, all they found was faulty wiring for a hot tub, not a grow-op.
'They're trying to cheat the system and go through the back door of municipal law to do criminal law searches.'—B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby"Its embarrassing," said Gowanlock. "They're in there in the middle of the day. They're there in their inspection van. They have the RCMP waiting outside."
"But they still administered the fee, the $5,200 fee," he said.
In another case, a 67-year-old man who was found to be growing cucumbers — not marijuana — in his basement was still slapped with the inspection fee.
The homeowners' lawsuit will claim the municipality is wantonly and unfairly targeting them, Gowanlock said.
"I believe it's a cash grab," he said. "I think it's a way to generate revenue. I think that $5,200 for 15 minutes of work is an awful lot of money."
District Coun. Jenny Stevens said she is concerned after learning that in half of the homes inspected, there was no evidence of marijuana growing.
"Those people have still suffered the embarrassment and the difficulty with their neighbours," said Stevens.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association hopes to use the legal case to fight similar bylaws elsewhere in the province.
"The problem is, they're trying to cheat the system and go through the back door of municipal law to do criminal law searches," said executive director David Eby. "That's a real problem."
A similar bylaw in Surrey has been successfully challenged in court. Inspectors in that city now either ask consent before entering a home or conduct a search armed with a warrant.
Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-col...#ixzz1Ah6dwhsp
Re: B.C. homeowner fined
War on grow-ops in B.C. has unexpected casualties
In the war on marijuana grow-ops, municipalities across the Lower Mainland are slapping homeowners – including those with no link to illegal drugs – with a hefty bill for an inspection of their property, saying the fees cover the costs involved.
But those cost-recovery fees vary by thousands of dollars. In Mission, the bill for an inspection is $5,200, but Surrey assesses a fee of $3,200.
Mission resident Stacy Gowanlock, who was given a bill for $5,200 after his property was inspected, said Tuesday he believes Mission charges more because the municipality is strapped for funds. He has been unable to find out how Mission arrives at its fee.
Mr. Gowanlock said he paid $350 for a six-hour home inspection when he bought the house. “They were here for 15 minutes and it was $5,200,” he said.
Ten municipalities in the Lower Mainland have safety inspection programs that send inspectors armed with B.C. Hydro statistics on abnormal energy consumption into homes. In addition to Surrey and Mission, Richmond, Coquitlam, Langley, Langley City, Abbotsford, Pitt Meadows, Chilliwack and Port Coquitlam use the inspection process.
The safety inspections came about as a result of concerns over grow-ops that pose electrical hazards from faulty wiring and the overloading of residential electrical circuits.
Critics say the safety inspections are a substitute for police raids of suspected grow-ops. Police cannot enter a home without reasonable grounds for believing that they will find illegal activity. However, safety inspectors can just go in and look around. If they find a grow-op, they call police, who are usually waiting at the curb.
B.C. Hydro said 15,213 residential accounts last year had unusually high power consumption, a figure that includes farms, multifamily dwellings and home-based businesses, as well as single-family homes. About one-third of the high-consumption accounts are in the Lower Mainland.
The 10 municipalities conducted 3,528 inspections between 2005 and 2009. Safety violations associated with grow-ops were found in 2,311 homes, Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis said in an interview.
However, many of the homeowners who were inadvertently caught in a crackdown on marijuana grow-ops say they were doing nothing more than using power to run their hot tubs, baseboard heaters or air-conditioning units.
Mr. Gowanlock has a 4,500-square-foot home with six children, landscape lighting, a hot tub, a pool and a 1,200-square-foot shop that is used as a pool house and to store a boat. He has been fighting city hall for more than a year over the inspection fee. In recent months, he has heard from more than 100 homeowners in Mission who were also inspected and assessed a fee, although they were not charged with doing anything illegal.
Mr. Gowanlock said he is now speaking to lawyers about launching a class-action lawsuit, challenging the right of a municipality to inspect his home as if it were a crime scene and to impose a fee. He felt he was being fined for something he did not do.
“They [the safety inspectors] are violating the rights of many people,” Mr. Gowanlock said Tuesday in an interview. “The city should not be fighting crime. They should be allowing the RCMP to conduct their own investigation. [The RCMP] are trained professionals, whether it involves drugs or firearms. [The inspectors] are untrained.”
Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the inspections appear to be “an end-run around the need for a criminal warrant,” with police often waiting outside while safety inspectors go into the homes. “It’s not about safety,” she said.
Ms. Vonn said she believes the inspectors need an administrative warrant before entering a home. They have to show the evidence to somebody, to go through a process of review for the city to assess it, she said. "This is what we think is required."
Municipalities say the fee is imposed only when evidence of a controlled substance is found on the property, Ms. Vonn noted. But when inspectors fail to find marijuana plants, they have pointed to mud from potted plants, mould and hooks on the wall as evidence of a grow-op and the grounds for assessing the fee, she said.
The association has also received a complaint about a fee based on an empty room that inspectors found to be suspicious. The room was empty in order to be painted for a new baby, Ms. Vonn said.
Mission Fire Chief Ian Fitzpatrick said the inspection fee is assessed “if there are enough observations made and the team believes that the property is in violation of the Controlled Substance Property bylaw.”
The indication of a violation could include alterations to the structure of the house, vent holes, new drywall, mould, alterations to the gas lines, remnants of plants, and soils or fertilizers.
Chief Fitzpatrick also said no fees are levied if a legitimate reason can be identified for higher-than-normal electricity usage. The fees are meant to be brought only against those who are violating the regulations, he said.
Surrey has collected $5.3-million in fees from the inspections. Chief Garis said the inspections are conducted at no charge if inspectors do not find any problems with electrical safety or alterations to the building that have been made without a permit. “If there is something found that is wrong that is associated with a controlled substance, then the full effects of the inspection will be charged,” he said. “It’s not a fine, it’s a cost-recovery fee,” he said.
Mission has collected almost $1-million in fees since introducing the safety inspections in September of 2008.
With a report from Evan Duggan