Judge rules private landowners can’t block public access to B.C. lake

The Nicola Valley ranch’s position was that it owned Stoney Lake and Minnie Lake

  • Dec. 8, 2018 12:10 p.m.

–– Kamloops This Week

People in a packed Kamloops courtroom broke out in applause on Friday as a B.C. Supreme Court judge delivered a judgment described as decades in the making, ruling all lakes are public property and prohibiting private landowners from restricting access to them.

The decision was the culmination of a protracted trial spanning six years, pitting a wealthy private ranch — the Douglas Lake Cattle Company, owned by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke (husband of a Walmart heir and owner of the Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche, Arsenal and other professional sports franchises) — against the B.C. government and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club in a fight over access to two small fishing lakes.

The Nicola Valley ranch’s position was that it owned Stoney Lake and Minnie Lake because the bodies of water are surrounded by private property and alterations to the lakes had been made by the company. The ranch also claimed ownership of fish in the lakes by virtue of the fact it kept them stocked.

The fish and game club, on the other hand, argued B.C. laws don’t allow private landowners to control bodies of water or the fish inside them.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Joel Groves ruled against the ranch. He determined roads in the area of the lakes that had been claimed as the property of the ranch were actually public. Groves also said the Douglas Lake Cattle Company may have to remove dams it has constructed to increase the size of some lakes, which resulted in flooded roads.

Groves ruled the ranch cannot lawfully block access to either lake, but he did place some limits on the actions of anglers, ordering catch-and-release fishing on both of the lakes.

“It would be nonsensical for a government to retain the rights to a lake if, by virtue of a single owner purchasing all the land surrounding a lake, that owner could prohibit public use or ownership of the lake,” Groves said in his ruling.

“It only makes sense that government would have retained the ownership of bodies of water, lakes, with the intention of the public being allowed to access water they retained.”

But, Groves added, there are limits.

“By access, I am not suggesting that there exists a right to motorboat or other vehicular access to bodies of water, but it only makes sense that the government’s intention in retaining ownership of lakes means that there is public access, as determined and regulated by government, to these lakes,” he said.

In his judgment, Groves also called out the provincial government for decades of inaction despite findings by provincial officials as far back as 1996 that the ranch’s actions were illegal.

“Yet the province did not respond to this apparent unlawful act. In fact, for over 20 years, it did nothing,” Groves said.

“Over 20 years, a privately held corporation, owning a large swath of land, prohibited the public from driving on a public road and the province did nothing. This is most unfortunate. … The province has continuously failed the citizens of British Columbia.”

Groves also issued a five-page epilogue imploring the government to change its laws and regulate access to address issues surrounding ownership and use of lakes and other Crown land. Failing to do so, he said, could lead to a wave of expensive litigation.

“First off, look at the Trespass Act. Is that really what you intend in today’s world?” Groves said. “Secondly, if you own the lakes of the province, which you do, can you not regulate access? There really is no point to ownership, otherwise.”

As Groves stood up to leave the courtroom — packed with about 75 spectators — supporters of the fish and game club broke out in applause.

Douglas Lake Cattle Company ranch manager Joe Gardner was not one of those celebrating.

“I think I want to read it and think about it,” he said of Groves’ decision. “I’ve got no comment other than that.”

Speaking to reporters outside court, Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club spokesman Rick McGowan called the decision “a win” for his organization, but not the end of the fight.

“It’s good for future litigation,” he said, noting he has been involved in the battle for lake access for 30 years.

Douglas Lake Cattle Company has not indicated whether it intends to appeal Groves’ decision.

Tim Petruk, Kamloops This Week

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The two sites in question included a number of commercial buildings, some of them currently boarded up. (Langley Advance Times files)
Deal to add Fort Langley land to Kwantlen reserve called off

Elders and a land advisory group within the KFN opposed the project

The RCMP helicopter. (File photo)
Suspect escapes after police pursuit through Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford

Police chase involved two stolen vehicles, including one taken in Mission

Langley’s Brian Morton and Cadillac won the $73,000 ATCO Cup Grand Prix at the Harvest Welcome event held at Thunderbird Show Park on October 18, 2020. (Rob Wilton/special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Langley rider Brian Morton wins ATCO Cup at Thunderbird Show Park

His first FEI win with Cadillac at the venue that jump-started his show jumping career

Windows are under construction at D.W. Poppy School. (Aldergrove Star files)
Window replacements still ongoing at D.W. Poppy

Work was scheduled to finish at the end of summer, but COVID slowed the project by several months

Early voting started last week, and thousands of mail-in ballots have also gone out. (File Photo)
Thousands of votes already cast in Langley, Aldergrove ridings

About a tenth of voters have already hit the polls

Mary Foote (right) took part in the Gutsy Walk in August 2020 at the age of 104. She was joined by son in-law Clarence and daughter Edith Olson. (family photo)
Langley woman turns 105 on Oct. 25

In August, Mary Foote took part in the Gutsy Walk to battle Crohn’s and Colitis

With local MLA Adam Olsen looking on, BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said a Green government would convert BC Ferries into a Crown corporation Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Green leader Sonia Furstenau promises to convert BC Ferries back into Crown corporation

Promise comes Monday afternoon with five days left in campaign

IIO Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Police watchdog concludes Mounties didn’t shoot Surrey teen at strip mall

IIO finds tragic death of teenager ‘not the result of any actions or inactions’ by the Surrey RCMP

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Police confirm human remains were found in a recycling bin in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Human remains found in recycling bin floating near Vancouver beach

Police asking nearby residents to see if their recycling bin has gone missing

Emergency crews shut down White Rock’s Five Corners district on Feb. 19, 2020 after an altercation left an elderly man in critical condition. (File photo)
Trial dates set in White Rock manslaughter case

Proceedings against Ross Banner, 71, set for June 2021 in Surrey Provincial Court

The many faces of Daon Glasgow. (Photos: Surrey RCMP)
Glasgow found not guilty of trying to murder transit cop in Surrey

Transit Police Constable Josh Harms was shot Jan. 30, 2019 at Scott Road SkyTrain Station

Most Read