British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the largest private landowner in the province in a dispute over public access to public land.
In a unanimous ruling, a panel of the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned a lower-court order and gives the Douglas Lake Cattle Company the right to block access to Crown-owned Stoney and Minnie lakes, which are within the huge ranch east of Merritt, B.C.
The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company, owned by U.S. billionaire and sports franchise owner Stan Kroenke, blocked road and trail access to the lakes.
Writing for the court in a decision posted online Friday, Justice Peter Willcock says the province’s lack of public access legislation entitles the ranch to restrict access, even though public fishing is still allowed on each lake and a portion of a road near one of the lakes remains public.
Willcock says the “truly divided” decision also affects a lower-court order awarding special costs to the small, privately funded fish and game club.
The club and ranch must now pay their own costs of the lengthy legal battle, while costs of the appeal are awarded to the cattle company because its arguments “substantially succeeded.”
The judgment says the club’s argument of the right to cross private land to a Crown-owned, public lake could not succeed.
“In my view, while this argument may attract considerable public support, it has no support in our law,” Willcock says.
The lack of public access legislation in the province “reflects a policy decision by the legislature that is the focus of some debate,” says Willcock.
But the debate does not alter current laws, and Willcock says the lower-court judge instead “added his voice to the chorus of those seeking to limit the rights of private property owners.”
“In doing so, he was not describing the law but advocating for a right of public access to lakes on private land,” says Willcock, ruling there is “no statutory or common law right” to cross the ranch property to reach the lakes.