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 BC Hydro inspections about safety, not marijuana, prof says


Residents angry about fees threaten lawsuit


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Residents angry about fees threaten lawsuit



A controversial B.C. law that allows municipalities to inspect homes using large amounts of electricity has helped make neighbourhoods safer and thwarted marijuana-grow operations, says a criminology professor whose research triggered the law.

But his comments are unlikely to move outraged citizens in the District of Mission, 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 growing operation.

But even if one 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 marijuana growing operations, the driving force behind them is safety, said Plecas, whose research has found that operations 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 alleged 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 growing operation, 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 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.

Len Garis, the chief in Surrey, one of the first municipalities to do inspections, said the vast majority of residents who have to pay the fees never complain, an indication 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

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Hydro+inspections+about+safety+marijuana+prof+says/4149067/story.html#ixzz1BziYEqEQ