B.C. homeowners fuming over marijuana growing operation search law
By Douglas Quan, Vancouver Sun
METRO VANCOUVER — A controversial B.C. law that allows municipalities to inspect homes using large amounts of electricity has helped make neighbourhoods safer and thwarted marijuana-growing operations, says a criminology professor whose research triggered the law.
But his comments are unlikely to move outraged citizens in one community, who are girding for a fight with their local council and threatening a class-action lawsuit — complaining that they've been slapped with unjust and excessive inspection fees and unfairly labelled as criminals.
A change in 2006 to the B.C. Safety Standards Act gave municipalities direct access to electricity-consumption data from the province's electric utility, BC Hydro, and the ability to identify homes with unusually high power usage.
Armed with that data, public-safety teams, consisting of building, fire and electrical experts, have been inspecting some of these properties after giving homeowners 24 to 48 hours notice.
The inspectors typically look for tampered wiring and plumbing, overloaded circuits, mould buildup, pesticides, holes in walls and extra ventilation ducts — possible indications of a grow op.
But even if a grow op isn't found — which is the case most of the time — authorities can still find that a home is in violation of safety bylaws and require the homeowner to fix the problems.
"There has been a tendency for people to view this as nothing more (than) a backdoor to get at grow ops. This a complete misrepresentation," said Darryl Plecas, a criminology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.
While the bylaws have helped make a dent in the number of grow ops, the driving force behind them is safety, said Plecas, whose research has found that grow ops constitute a fire hazard because of the way electrical wiring is configured.
"Should we ignore these safety hazards?" he asked.
But critics say municipalities are unfairly tagging violators' property titles as a "controlled-substance property," even when no plants are found.
"They are essentially fabricating grow ops," said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
"They are designating that a residence is a 'controlled-substance property,' burdening the land title with an allegation of growing drugs, devaluing the property."
The finding of mould, potting soil and holes in the wall are hardly solid evidence of a marijuana grow op, she said, adding that one resident who was found in violation had been growing cucumbers.
On top of that, residents found in violation are assessed hefty fees to cover the cost of inspecting their homes. In the District of Mission, where much of the attention has been focused, the fee is $5,200.
"Somebody who goes through and inspects your house when you're buying your house will charge a few hundred dollars," Vonn said.
Seventy-four residents in that community have signed on for a class-action lawsuit, though a statement of claim has not yet been filed. One local councillor has put forward a motion to repeal the bylaw at this Monday's council meeting.
But B.C. fire chiefs are standing by the inspection programs.
Ian Fitzpatrick, the Mission fire chief, said Friday that when inspections started in 2008, his district's teams levelled inspection fees in about 75 to 80 per cent of the cases. Now that number has dropped to about 50 per cent.
"The perception we charge everybody is not true at all," he said. "I believe as the fire chief, it's made an impact in the community in terms of reducing the number of properties with safety concerns."
Len Garis, the chief in Surrey, B.C., one of the first municipalities to do inspections, said the vast majority of residents who are slapped with inspection fees never complain, an indication to him that they were doing something they shouldn't have been doing.
The disclosure of a violation on a property title could create a lasting "stigma", but prospective homebuyers deserve to know if that property has ever been found in violation of a bylaw, he said.