|Photo: Les Bazso/PNG|
|Len Gratto on his property in Mission on Saturday, January 8, 2011. Gratto is ready to join an imminent class-action lawsuit against Mission, for hitting him with a $5,200 grow op inspection fee. The 67-year-old says he and his wife were growing cucumbers in the basement, he never grew pot, and he and many other Mission residents are being unfairly searched and fined.|
A Canadian homeowner says there is no way he will pay a $5,200 fine to Mission, B.C., for growing cucumbers in his basement.
Len Gratto, who has lived in the home for 30 years, said he’s ready to join an imminent class-action lawsuit against the municipality’s grow-op bylaw inspections, reports Sam Cooper at Postmedia News.
A number of citizens, led by Stacy Gowanlock, said their homes were illegally searched for marijuana grow-ops, resulting in them being slapped with fees and repair orders sometimes exceeding $10,000 — all on flimsy evidence.
Gratto, 67, said he has never grown pot. He said the “laughable” evidence against him consists of pictures of some “dirt” on the basement wall, and “a furnace pipe going up into the chimney, where it should be.”
“It’s upsetting they can do this,” Gratto said. “We were growing cucumbers in the basement because they wouldn’t take outside.”
|Photo: Les Bazso/PNG/The Province|
|Stacy Gowanlock sits beside his hot tub and a $5,200 bill for a property inspection. Officials suspected he had a grow-op because of high electricity usage. Instead of marijuana, inspectors found a problem with the wiring in his hot tub, which Gowanlock says explains the high power consumption.|
Gowanlock said he was searched in 2009 and hit with thousands in fees and repair orders, despite never growing marijuana in his home. A lawyer will probably be filing his civil suit in the next few days, he said.
“I’m going to be the one that steps forward,” Gowanlock said. “It’s the whole process. You’re violating people’s rights.”
In a move that, according to reporter Cooper, could “alter the landscape of drug enforcement in B.C.,” the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said it is joining the battle against Mission, widening the focus to a region-wide challenge to “home grow-op bylaws.”
Grow-op bylaw programs sound like a bad dream. Based on provincial legislation, they allow “municipal inspectors” to enter homes which have what they deem “abnormally high” electricity usage — about 93 kilowatts or more per day — and “look for evidence” of illegal marijuana grow-ops for “public safety” reasons.
What’s worse, inspectors don’t even have to find any marijuana. If they find what they deem “residual evidence,” such as high mold readings, they charge homeowners “search fees” and order often-expensive repairs.
If homeowners don’t comply, their homes are tagged under the bylaw and effectively condemned as unsafe and unsellable.
According to anti-pot proponents of the bylaws, they have been “phenomenally successful” in driving cannabis production out of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
|Michael Vonn, B.C. Civil Liberties Association: Searches are “putting innocent people under horrible duress”|
But in mid-December, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s Michael Vonn led a delegation to Mission’s city council, warning of the strong possibility of a class-action suit and telling council members that the searches are “putting innocent people under horrible duress.”
David Eby, also of the BCCLA, said the city council didn’t want to hear it and have not responded. Even if the promised citizen-led action against Mission falls apart, the BCCLA plans to initiate its own case.
“Our concern is the program is very poorly run, and there is no due process around these massive fines,” Eby said.
Glen Robertson, chief administrative officer of Mission, refused to comment on the allegations or threat of litigation.
Documents released to the Vancouver Province under the Freedom of Information law show that Mission has drawn $1.43 million in revenue from fines assessed by “Public Safety Inspection Team” searches since 2008. Now is the picture a little clearer for you?
From 2008 to 2010, there were 362 searches. In 177 cases, residents were found “in contravention” of the bylaw and there were an additional 98 grow-op inspections by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Including both RCMP and PSIT searches, inspection fees of $5,200 were levied a whopping 275 times in the municipality of Mission alone.
Mission claims its inspection program is “revenue neutral”; fees include funding for the RCMP, who supposedly monitor searches from the sidelines.
But critics including Gowanlock said that Mission’s inspection-funding scheme amounts to a “cash grab.”
Council member Jenny Stevens said she at first supported the inspection program, but now believes about half of homeowners inspected are innocent.
|District of Mission|
|Mayor James Atebe “strongly supports” the inspection program: ” I don’t want to lose the tool because it’s imperfect”|
”My biggest worry is about 50 percent of these people were subjected to embarrassment and innnuendo,” Stevens said. “I’m very concerned about the threat of litigation.”
Mission Mayor James Atebe was not available for comment, but he said he “strongly supported” the inspection program in a report last November, although he was “willing to improve it.”
“I don’t want to lose the tool because it’s imperfect,” Mayor Atebe said. “Also, I don’t want to keep the tool if it’s encroaching on people’s rights.”
Another class-action suit against municipal grow-op bylaws is also currently unfolding in Coquitlam, B.C.
Nearly 18,000 homes across B.C. — about the same number of residences as in all of West Vancouver — use “suspiciously high amounts of electricity,” according to the power company, BC Hydro, which says this is often a telltale sign of a marijuana growing operation.