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Updated: Camping bylaw changed

District of Squamish council modifies proposed controversial camping bylaw amidst a torrent of criticism.
Squamish woman sets up a tent in town. Photo by Alex Ratson/Getty Images

Update: This bylaw was formally adopted as of May 25 in a 6-1 vote. Coun. Chris Pettingill was the sole dissenting voter. All other elected officials voted in favour of the motion. The bylaw is now in effect.

In the face of overwhelming criticism, the District of Squamish council blinked.

On May 18, council deferred adopting its controversial camping bylaw and instead rescinded third reading.

Then, in a 6-1 vote, elected officials gave third reading to an amended version of Bylaw 2829 that would remove the controversial blue zone, which is an area where recreational camping would’ve been prohibited but where homeless people would have been allowed to shelter.

That area encompassed most of Squamish south of the Garibaldi Highlands.

The amendment also adds the Smoke Bluffs to the no-camping zone, which already includes the Estuary, Spit, and Mamquam River Forest Service Road.

Adoption of this modified version of the camping bylaw is expected at a future date, but it will not come in time for the May long weekend.

Coun. Chris Pettingill was the only one opposed to the motion. All other elected officials voted in favour of granting third reading to the revised regulations.

“Some of the discussion has been very troubling for me, and although the confusion may not have helped, I see a lot of finger-pointing that the problems are visitors and then, no, the problems are homeless people and conflating all homeless people with addicts. And a real — from my perspective — exclusion of people who are struggling or are a little bit different and sort of blaming the other, which makes me very uncomfortable,” said Pettingill.

“I think we’ve been wanting strong tools for visitor management and I understand that, but I am concerned we are reinforcing some of that perspective and that way of thinking,” said Pettingill.

However, Coun. Jenna Stoner, who was previously opposed to the bylaw said she would support the revised version of the regulations.

“I appreciate the changes that have been made. I think there was a lot of confusion,” said Stoner.

“I think these amendments do start to address some of those points of confusion in terms of what applies where, so I’m very happy to see the removal of the blue area. I think that will help clarify.”

The District said its intent with Bylaw 2829 was to regulate recreational campers who generated many complaints from locals, while, at the same time, providing flexibility for homeless people to find shelter in accordance with legal precedents.

The ultimate result was a bylaw that drew fire from advocates for vehicle residents and the vulnerable, as well as residents who feared the bylaw would create homeless camps and allow tourists to continue destructive behaviour unchecked.

In the amended bylaw’s language, camping in parks is banned. However, homeless people are allowed to set up temporary shelters in parks, with some exceptions. Finally, the regulations also target vehicle dwellers, as it prohibits people from staying more than one hour in a parked vehicle during evenings.

The bylaw’s previously proposed blue zone south of Mamquam Road would have encompassed downtown, the business park and Valleycliffe. In those areas, homeless people would’ve been allowed to shelter, but recreational campers would be barred.

This created several key fears.

Some were worried it would give homeless people leeway to set up large encampments in parks, though the District has disputed this.

Others complained the blue zone would funnel people into concentrated areas in southern Squamish — in particular, Valleycliffe.

Local vehicle dwellers say it would unfairly target them, as there is no means to differentiate between permanent vehicle residents and recreational van campers responsible for most nuisance reports.

Regardless of the reason, just about all who spoke or wrote to council said the bylaw should either be significantly changed or scrapped. At the very least, those who wrote in expressed concern about the regulations.

While public appearances were made challenging due to COVID-19 restrictions, a petition of almost 500 signatures from mainly Valleycliffe residents was submitted to council, urging elected officials to stop the camping bylaw.

Lee O’Callaghan, who was responsible for the petition, made an online appearance at the meeting before council began its deliberations.

“I’d like to make it clear the people who signed this petition are not anti-homeless,” said Callaghan. “They are concerned about a bylaw getting rushed through that will have a massive impact on our community.”

He said the blue zone would make Valleycliffe a target for illegal campers.

“This is so unfair for Valleycliffe, and I will go as far to say the bylaw is being used to funnel illegal campers who say they are homeless into our neighbourhood,” O’Callaghan said.

Furthermore, there were altogether 313 pages worth of emails entered into the public record.

Tourism Squamish’s executive director, Lesley Weeks was among those who wrote in.

“Understanding the complexity of the situation we would like to stress that, to a layperson, the ability to properly enforce these bylaws and create clarity for the community about how these changes will evolve for the benefit of all is not obvious,” she said.

Tourism Squamish is currently addressing concerns around negative resident sentiment toward tourism and spikes in visitation in the summer months. The board is worried that the proposed bylaws could have a significant effect on how residents view visitors if the bylaws are misunderstood or not appropriately enforced.”

She raised questions about how enforcement could differentiate between recreational campers and homeless people.

Weeks also wondered, among other things, about whether restricting vehicle dwelling while opening up tent camping will shift people towards the easier alternative.

Thomasina Pidgeon, an organizer with the Vehicle Residents of Squamish Advocacy Group, also raised her voice regarding the matter.

“This bylaw only reinforces the environments of social exclusion which assist the cultural narratives (i.e., homeless people are dangerous, unworthy, tax-evading) that result in increased stress, sleep deprivation, surveillance and displacement within the homeless and vehicle resident population. It is only a matter of time that these discriminatory policies will result in a Charter challenge, which could have easily been avoided with some honest consideration,” wrote Pidgeon.

“Decriminalizing responsible parking on publicly owned land is not asking for much. It requires nothing but a change in the wording of the bylaw — this does not involve a handout, nor a subsidy.”

People of many ages and walks of life messaged council, including a person who identified herself as a local teen.

“I’m a 16-year-old girl who has lived in Valleycliffe my whole life. I go for runs every day on the dike and constantly walk with friends. It makes me quite uncomfortable that homeless might be living in a frequently used area,” she wrote.

Others were more blunt with their words.

“How would you think that this is a good idea?” wrote Bridey Payne.

“We have already had issues with transient summer park campers leaving garbage, discarding drugs and drug paraphernalia, and shitting wherever they feel like it. I see this on a regular basis when I walk my dog and child at Rose Park. My dog eats the shit whenever she can find it. And it’s not hard, it’s everywhere.”

Mayor Karen Elliott acknowledged the confusion the bylaw has caused and apologized while noting the necessity of having enforcement tools.

“I may pass a motion to never use the colour blue on the District map ever again,” she joked.

But she did have some comments directed toward the Valleycliffe petitioners.

“I would hope that the 400-plus people that took the time to sign Mr. O’Callaghan’s petition take a few minutes tonight to send an email to Minister [David] Eby, the minister of housing and BC Housing and talk about the importance of investing in housing, supportive housing, in the District of Squamish. Because that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Elliott.

“So you can say you’re not against homeless people, but I would hope that your advocacy then goes in the direction of supporting our efforts to bring more housing to Squamish. Because I think it’s been disappointing to see just how deep this stigma and how much people are marginalized from just the unlucky fact that they find themselves homeless in this community where it’s getting harder and harder to attain that housing.”