City criticized for towing derelict vehicles
The City of Merritt campaign to clean up derelict vehicles has become a “monster,” in the words of bylaw services officer Bob Davis.
Davis said he started towing unlicensed vehicles off city property and derelict vehicles from private property in January, after noticing several of the vehicles breaking the nuisance abatement bylaw in residential neighbourhoods.
“Up until now, there really has been little enforcement, it appears, judging by the number of derelict vehicles associated with residential neighbourhoods in this community,” Davis said. “I chose to start this not realizing what a monster it was.”
Merritt bylaw defines a derelict vehicle as “any motor vehicle, or part thereof, which is physically damaged, wrecked or disabled; is not capable of operating under its own power; and does not have attached number plates for the current year pursuant.”
Property owners or occupiers in Merritt are not allowed to have any derelict vehicles under the bylaw, unless they have a valid business licence for vehicle repair, storage or wrecking. However, they are allowed two unlicensed, but operable, vehicles on private property.
The bylaw leaves a grey area where unlicensed vehicles could be considered derelict, Davis said.
“That means I have to make a decision as to whether it’s simply an unlicensed vehicle that has value or a derelict vehicle that will never have any value,” he said. “I’m left with very difficult decisions based on the bylaws that I have to work with.
“I’m not interested in towing valuable possessions. That’s not what this is about. It’s about finding vehicles that have been there for decades and if I don’t do anything about it, they will be there for decades longer,” he said.
Davis added that he is willing to negotiate with property owners if they plan to sell or restore the vehicles.
“If people have a plan for the vehicles beyond sitting in a yard for years in a residential neighbourhood, then I’m willing to entertain negotiations,” he said.
However, Sonya Garcia said Davis decided her 18-year-old’s vehicle was derelict when it was still able to run and only needed new tires to be drivable.
Earlier this month, she found a one-day notice to move the truck and her uncle’s van from city property (they were parked on the side of the street) so the family complied with the order and moved them onto her brother’s nearby property. Since those were the only two unlicensed vehicles on the private property, Garcia said she thought the family was obeying by the bylaw.
“The next day, [Davis] came and had our vehicles towed away, which are in running condition and were uninsured,” Garcia said. “He didn’t call or ask what was happening with them.”
On city property, any derelict vehicles can be towed without notice.
On private property, the owners or occupiers must be given an order to comply with the bylaw before derelict or extra unlicensed vehicles are towed. Davis said he gave Garcia’s brother two weeks plus a day of notice that he would remove the vehicles.
Garcia added that a buyer interested in her son’s vehicle showed up about an hour after it was impounded.
Garcia initially paid the fee of over $200 to retrieve the vehicle, but the situation had left a bad taste in her mouth, and she returned for a refund.
“I just went back and got my money back,” she said. “It’s not worth it.”
Garcia said she thinks the city would be more successful in cleaning up neighbourhoods if it focused on derelict properties around town, such as the spray-painted house on Fir Street, rather than towing derelict and unlicensed vehicles.
Davis said those vehicles became a priority because they contribute to unsightly properties.
“The reason I’m not doing my job in some other place is because you’ve attracted me to your place,” he said. “The neighbourhoods would turn into used car lots. And where’s the oil, where’s the acid, and where’s the gas going when we store these vehicles?”
According to city regulations, the bylaw officer is the only person legally allowed to enter any property “at all reasonable times” to check if bylaws are being observed.
“I’m the only one in the city who — without probably grounds that a criminal offence has been committed, will be committed, or is being committed — can enter onto a property during my duties as a bylaw officer,” Davis said. “I’ve been given that authority by the CAO of the city and the mayor and council, and I’m not going to let them down — nor am I going to let down the people in these neighbourhoods who have to put up with this stuff. It’s those people who I’m fighting for.”
Development Services Officer Sean O’Flaherty said the city’s goal is to preserve property owners’ rights, rather than detract from vehicle owners’ rights.
“The city’s property standards bylaw and traffic bylaw, which both relate to derelict vehicles, are not intended to remove civil liberties or rights of property owners,” he said. “It’s more about protecting everybody else’s right to live in a safe and clean neighbourhood. People buy houses in residential neighbourhoods because they made a decision not to buy a house next to an auto-wrecking facility or junkyard.”
Garcia said the issue around her vehicles still doesn’t sit right with her.
“I honestly think they need to change the bylaw,” she said. “There are too many things that aren’t right. Where’s your right to privacy?”