In a case critics view as an example of bureaucratic overreach, a Sicamous man is facing a $20,000 fine after the province concluded his involvement on a project to fix up a historic fire lookout contravened the Forest and Range Practices Act.
Guy Maris is appealing the fine and province’s determination that he broke the rules by participating in the construction project, which didn’t have the proper written permission, and ignoring a stop-work order the province placed on the site.
The province alleged Maris, along with Sicamous snowmobile guide Rene St. Onge, spearheaded the project to fix up the site of the fire lookout, creating a cabin on the stone foundation of the lookout, which dates back to 1922.
“An affront to the rest of the province”
While some believe the province is being too harsh, provincial officials see the unapproved construction project on Crown land as an infringement on public property.
“Maris essentially treated Crown land and historical Crown property as his own private property which is an affront to the rest of the province,” wrote Ray Crampton, a district manager for the provincial ministry responsible, in his decision.
Crampton said he believed “on the balance of probabilities” that St. Onge and Maris “intended to use the Eagle Pass lookout for commercial purposes,” noting the roof of the lookout had allegedly been “designed to accommodate the weight of a helicopter.”
In Crampton’s decision, it’s clear the province also has concerns about the impact of the construction project, which at times used a helicopter, on wildlife and the impact “irreversible” changes the project made to the building had on its historical character and long-term structural soundness.
“The actions of Mr. St. Onge and Mr. Maris have left the Crown with considerable work to do to mitigate the potential risk to the environment and public safety,” wrote Crampton.
However, those involved in the reconstruction project have argued that after a discussion with a FrontCounter BC staff member, they either believed they had verbal approval or that the type of project didn’t require official approval.
“When I left, I shook hands with him and he was like, ‘I can give you approval on that one, but if you are doing a new trail or new cabin then we have to go through the application process,’” St. Onge said in a 2017 interview with Global News.
However, Crampton concluded St. Onge either wasn’t remembering the official’s advice correctly or misunderstood it and that at any rate, it was unreasonable of them to think they could go ahead with such a large project without authorization.
“It is not reasonable to believe that a large project like theirs on Crown land in a designated recreation site and in relation to a historic building did not require ministry authorization simply because a foundation, and stonework remained from the previous lookout structure,” Crampton wrote.
“The existence of concrete and stone work is not an invitation for the public to build any structure of their choice.”
St. Onge was killed while guiding a group of snowmobilers near Sicamous last December and thus was not fined.
Support from the mayor
However, Maris and the rest of those who worked on the project, high on a mountain top between Revelstoke and Sicamous, have the support of Sicamous’ mayor, who lent a hand on the project himself.
Mayor Terry Rysz called the province’s decision to fine Maris “somewhat concerning.”
“Here is a group of volunteers that went out and did something that was absolutely amazing. To fine him for doing something in a volunteer state to me is really uncalled for but somewhere along the line maybe they are just trying to set a precedent.”
Rysz also praised the quality of the construction and said he believes that the site was not being fixed up for commercial purposes.
“This thing is amazing, volunteers built it and they did it with good intentions and at the end of it they got fined which is ridiculous,” Rysz said.
“It is for everyone to go and visit.”
Rysz would like to see the lookout stay in its current improved state and see the work of volunteers recognized.
The province points out that Crampton’s decision didn’t order the fire lookout “remediated or destroyed but emphasized that it is provincial government property.”
The province has not responded to questions about what it plans to do with the site.
The fire lookout rebuild project has attracted considerable public support in the past after concerns were raised it could be torn down due to a lack of official permissions.
More than 13,000 people signed an online petition to “save” the structure with some viewing the provinces’ handling of the issue as heavy-handed government overreach.
Maris has appealed both the decision that he contravened the Forest and Range Practices Act and the fine.
In his notice of appeal, he argues the building was in a “state of disrepair” before the restoration work was done and he was part of an “ad hoc group of volunteers” who raised money for the project and there was evidence the work done on the lookout “exceeded the requirements of the BC Building Code.”
Maris, in his notice of appeal, is also arguing that the province was wrong about the nature of his involvement in the project.
He disputes that construction was done on the site after the stop-work order and says he merely saw other people installing bunk beds, a table and flag but “took no part in those activities.”
The appeal also underlines that Maris “did not derive any economic benefit from” the unapproved construction.
It also contends that the province didn’t give him enough notice to properly respond to all the allegations against him before levying the fine.
Maris will not have to pay the fine until the outcome of the appeal is determined.