A potential natural gas leak in an empty house on Townsite Road has a Nanaimo resident asking why city bylaw doesn’t take more action to secure abandoned properties. The property, located at 630 Townsite Road, sits just behind the fence from the bedroom of Danielle Baker’s four-month-old daughter.
For months, Baker was in contact with city bylaw and mayor Leonard Krog to find out why the vacant house wasn’t boarded up or fenced off to keep individuals out.
Baker’s concerns came to a head on Jan. 10 when her family awoke to Nanaimo Fire and Rescue entering the empty house to assess a potential natural gas leak. FortisBC told The Discourse, via email, that they also assessed the property that day. No leak was found and their technician locked all gas services before clearing the site. All FortisBC supplies to the property were removed on Jan. 13.
When Baker and family first moved to the neighbourhood in 2021, they were uncertain about the “dilapidated, overgrown” state of the property, but were assured by neighbours that the house was rented out and was not an issue, Baker wrote In a Jan. 10 public Facebook post.
The property was sold on Feb. 19, 2022, which is when the renters likely moved out. Once it was vacated, the house became a concern, Baker explains.
“People were accessing it if they could not use the shelter, which is just kitty-corner [to the property], but they needed to stay warm.”
The risk of explosion or fire was again top of mind when nine days later, on Feb. 27, a house in the Old City Quarter was “reduced to rubble,” according to Nanaimo RCMP.
“My husband has been a firefighter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for 15 years and immediately recognized that this house could become dangerous if not properly secured,” Baker recalled.
Walls can be ripped apart by people looking for copper pipes, she added, and the floors could be torn up to burn for warmth. If the house catches fire, it can behave in unexpected ways and firefighters can get hurt.
“We started by calling and writing the bylaw office months ago and got nowhere. We were told it was private property, and they couldn’t do anything,” she says.
What bylaw actions can be taken
The Discourse reached out to city bylaw and the Nanaimo Fire Department to find out what bylaws are in place and what actions can be taken regarding unoccupied buildings.
Dave LaBerge, manager of community safety for the City of Nanaimo, says the city relies largely on the provisions of the city’s fire protection and life safety regulations to assess how to handle single family dwellings.
Property owners are not required to secure their properties unless recommended to do so by the city, following an assessment of possible hazards on the property by the Nanaimo fire chief and associates.
“If the fire chief makes that order, then they can order the building either boarded up or fenced or even requiring them to have security services around the property,” says LaBerge. This is backed up by a City of Nanaimo Fire Protection and Life Safety Regulation bylaw.
If the risk is not fire-related, such as fall or injury from broken structures on the property, the city takes its cues from the provincial Occupiers Liability Act, explains LaBerge. The act states that a property landlord “is responsible for the maintenance or repair of the premises” and that anyone at any moment occupying the property “will be reasonably safe in using the premises.”
LaBerge notes that this puts property upkeep and security in the hands of landlords and occupants, even those not intentionally invited onto the property by the landlord. Anyone accessing the property takes on all risk of damage and injury, no matter the state of the property. This includes individuals not invited by the landlord and who might not take safety measures to protect themselves.
“That liability falls on themselves because they shouldn’t have been there.”
What’s the trigger point
For Baker, a risk of gas leaks or fire is just one piece of a broader issue — which is the safety concerns presented by unsecured empty properties.
She says she’s frustrated by the lack of clarity around what steps citizens can take to bring a property concern forward, and that an issue that seemed to be bylaw-related instead needed to be handled by the city fire department.
In all of her conversations and emails with bylaw, Baker says she was never made aware of the fact that it was the fire department that needed to assess the property’s fire risks.
“We were never told of any mechanism to trigger this inspection,” Baker says, via text.
Per the bylaw requirement, fire safety concerns can be raised by community members if the property is suspected of being in such a state of disrepair that a fire would easily threaten other properties, if combustible or explosive material on the premise are poorly managed or not allowed, or if property usage creates a fire risk to neighboring structures.
Bylaw strategies to deal with abandoned properties
Other municipalities such as the City of Coquitlam bylaws require owners fence or secure properties scheduled for demolition. The Discourse asked LaBerge whether Nanaimo had plans for or had looked into similar strategies.
“That takes a lot of municipal resources and then inevitably falls on our building department,” LaBerge says, citing Nanaimo’s rapid growth and explosion of development permits as the main barrier to building and maintaining a registry of potential abandoned properties around Nanaimo.
“Our building inspectors are months and months and months behind in keeping up with inspections,” he adds.
That lack of city resources for administering permits, including demolitions, could have been another reason why the property sat empty for more than a year.
A demolition permit was approved on March 10, 2023 and the building has now been demolished.
LaBerge says the city doesn’t want to encroach too far onto the rights of property owners, some he notes are investors outside of Nanaimo who are betting on Nanaimo’s continued growth to pay off.
“In certain years, (investors) can sell the property and make a profit. But in the meantime, they’re not present. They don’t inspect it, they don’t maintain it and it is a blight on the neighborhood. We don’t want to become the de facto people that are always coming to check in.”
Baker wonders if that same concern is felt for owners who do reside in Nanaimo, and fears what could have happened if there had been a gas leak on the property that had ignited.
“Had the blast not killed all of us, the shockwaves would have done severe concussive damage to her developing brain. It is awful to feel that your home is not safe for your daughter because the city you live in does not value your family’s lives,” she says.