Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Heritage Conservation Act

I don't know but I've been told that people who buy a designated "heritage" house are usually pretty limited as to what sorts of work they can do on that house. (Oh! Quick anecdote! Years back I was watching a home renovation show - This Old House or something along those lines - and it was about a couple who had bought a heritage home in some US city or other. They wanted to renovate it to how it had looked when first built over a hundred years before and did a huge amount of research into how the house had originally looked. They even found the original colour that the house had been painted. So, to be clear, this couple was ready and willing to put some pretty serious coin into this house and had some some hardcore legwork into doing it up right. The heritage committee in their town turned down their plan to paint the house it's original, or "heritage", colour because that did not fit into their heritage colour scheme. I don't remember how that particular episode ended, but I find it illustrative of the point that all too often the people who are in charge of these sorts of things are the last people who should be in charge of these sorts of things.) This is not my cup of tea but there are plenty of folks who are in to that sort of thing and good luck to 'em. And as these people should know what they are getting into, let's not hear any whining about how expensive it can be or anything, right? Buy a heritage home and you accept the property rights limitations and obligations that go along with it. That's the deal and fair enough.

As it turns out, in British Columbia we have what is called the Heritage Conservation Act. This is to protect First Nations heritage from being lost or destroyed. Anybody who owns property which is a heritage site cannot develop that site until an archaeological assessment has been done, and any First Nations artifacts or remains removed, all at the property owners expense. Obviously when one decides to buy a property that is a designated heritage site, there are 38,000 in British Columbia with almost 2,000 more being added every year, then one accepts that possibility of having to pay way extra if one decides to build on ones own property. Fair enough, right?

No. You see the current 38,000 heritage sites are not registered on any title deed. When you are looking at and even buying a property there is nothing to let you know that it is a heritage site. As an example; when I bought I was given all the property facts back for over a hundred years. In fact, technically, the government has the right to herd cattle to market through my back yard (as well as my neighbours I assume). Well, good luck with that and it will never happen but if it did, I couldn't say that I had not been aware of the possibility before I bought the property. Well, not honestly anyway.

But if my property had ever been claimed as being culturally significant by any First Nation group short of my actually contacting the Provincial government there is no real easy way to me to find out. If I tried to build on my new property I could wind up on the wrong side of the law due to something that I had no way of knowing, and that is not right.

The provincial minister in charge, Kevin Kreuger (Liberal - Kamloops-South Thompson) says the lack of disclosure has been a long-standing issue. "We are carefully working through how to address this whole issue." Kevin also points out that people assume some responsibilities when they buy a property, which is quite true. If I were to buy a property where I knew there was a dead tree about to fall on the neighbours house, I assume the responsibility to deal with that tree. This is a responsibility that you accept when you buy a property. Oh, and you are also aware of it before you buy the property. So I'm not sure what Kevin means with the "assume some responsibility" thing. How can you be expected to assume responsibility for something you don't even know about? Or why should you be responsible for something that changed after you bought the property? Almost 2,000 new sites every year, remember? That ain't right.

Kevin also points out that if the government does change the disclosure rules property owners will still have the main financial obligation. "The ownership of the land on the surface doesn't mean unrestricted control of what happens subsurface when the ground is disturbed." I think that last bit means "when you dig a hole" but then Kevin is 10x smarter than I will ever be so it would be unreasonable to expect him to speak normally. I was intrigued by the entire statement and it's implications though. Let's say I am digging a hole (!) in my back yard and I happen to find a chunk of gold. No, better yet, I find a well preserved leather sack of Roman gold coins. No, betterer yet, a pirate chest full of gold doubloons, triploons, quadloons and all sorts of jewels and crowns and swords and stuff! Yeah! Now who owns that and how do I find out?

A former chief of the Nanoose First Nation, Wayne Edwards, says that every BC landowner and buyer whose property is affected should be told. "Home owners should be afforded the courtesy of having that kind of information," he says, which is very reasonable. Unfortunately he also says, "Buyer beware. That land you are buying may be of historical importance to First Nations." I have no doubt that too much First Nation history has been lost forever, both accidentally and maliciously, and it is only right that a mechanism is in place to save what is left, but why is the home owner the one paying the bill? And why is everyone who can do something about it OK with how things are? I just think that as these artifacts are so important, why aren't the First Nations themselves paying to have them preserved? Are they maybe not quite that important? Obviously I don't believe that, but I have to wonder.

It would be nice if this were all a legalistic thought experiment used to illustrate how bad laws are enforced anyway, but unfortunately a family in BC is dealing with this stuff right now. The Allix family on Vancouver Island bought some property about 40-years ago, before the Heritage Conservation Act was brought in. They have lived on the property since and in 2007 the owners decided to build a smaller home for themselves beside the house they had lived in all this time. The local archaeological cabal finds out and goose-steps into the picture, stinking up the place and telling the family they cannot go ahead with their plans until an archaeological assessment is done, at the family's expense. There is an estimated cost of $4,000, which the family agrees to and the next thing you know there are archaeologists swarming all over the property, leaving trails of slime wherever they go. Some "artifacts" were found as well as some human bones and then the archaeologists had the nerve to present the family with a bill for $35,000, which is like $4,000 except way higher. The Allix family had even been billed for the archaeologists accommodation and meals.

I think we can call this an example of a family trying to do the right thing and getting screwed for their troubles. Years of issues, which may have hastened the death of one older member of the family, permit after permit, and at the end of it they get a bill for $35,000. Now there are probably people out there who can afford to flush $35,000 down the toilet but I don't know any of them. And where are the politicos who should be making sure that this sort of thing does not happen to BC landowners? Shaking their heads with phony sympathy and with crap-licking little smirks on their over-paid faces. And to be frank, the First Nations don't come out of this story looking real good either.

The fact is that if folks are going to get screwed over then somehow I think that people are going to stop worrying about it and just go ahead and bulldoze, which would make it a little worse for First Nation artifacts than it is now. Wouldn't it make a little more sense to have an environment where people want to help preserve this history? Unreasonable laws and threats won't do it. As things stand, if you ignore the Act then you are liable for a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 6-months in jail. Knowing government they will just increase the fine or something. It's easier. I am reminded once again that justice and the law are two different things.
Anyway... Humouroceros



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