Rainbow

Rainbow

Friday, March 31, 2017

Road Access Act saves landlocked neighbour from conviction on trespassing charge

Landowner W was charged with trespass, a provincial offence under the Trespass to Property Act, after he used a road he had constructed through a neighbour's property to reach his own landlocked property.  In her decision acquitting W of the charge, Justice of the Peace MacKinnon described the properties involved as follows:
This case involves three parcels of land, two of which front on Highway 609. Highway 609 is a two lane secondary highway in a rural area of Northwestern Ontario and runs in an east-west configuration.
On the south side of Highway 609 there is a parcel of land belonging to [M]. The west side of the [M] property fronts on the Wabigoon River. To the east of the [M] property is property belonging to [B] which is the North part of Lot 5, Concession 5. Its north boundary is Hwy 609, and its south boundary is on the north side of the defendant’s ([W]’s) property.
The defendant’s property is to the south of both the [M] and [B] properties. Its western boundary includes grasslands and the shore of the Wabigoon River. North is the [B] property and east is another property.
It is not disputed that the defendant purchased his lot as a landlocked property. He arranged for an easement over the [M] property from Highway 609, and received authority from the province for an entrance from the highway. He built a road south from Highway 609 through the [M] property but eventually turned southeast onto the [B] property and crossed it to his lot. [emphasis added]
A dispute arose surrounding the portion of this road on the [B] property.
At trial, W admitted that he had purchased his landlocked property as having water access only; it was his intention to purchase access from his neighbours (which he did from neighbour M, but not neighbour B).

The fact that W had constructed a road in part on lands owned by B and the fact that W had used that road were not in dispute.  What was at issue in the trial was whether W had a right or authority conferred by law which allowed W to go on the road through B's property.

Justice of the Peace MacKinnon examined whether W had a right or authority based upon the Road Access Act.  She noted:
The Act sets out strict prohibitions against landowners taking matters into their own hands and blocking or obstructing access roads, and requires an application to a Superior Court judge for an order closing the road. Landowners may only block a road when there is an alternate route for the landlocked owner to access their land. Such alternate routes must be in existence contemporaneously. A charge against a landowner who violates the Act, is a provincial offences matter with fines of up to $5,000 (s.61 POA).
MacKinnon, J.P. then found that W's road through B's property was a "road" for the purposes of the Road Access Act, meaning that W had a legal authority to use the road at the time for which he was accused of having trespassed.  The road was not owned by a municipality or dedicated as a public highway.  The road served as an access to landlocked property.  W had a "limited and temporary statutory right to use the road".  In fact, MacKinnon J.P.'s decision says that until such time as a closing order is obtained by B from the Superior Court as required by the Road Access Act, W would not be a trespasser on the road.

On top of the prosecution for trespass, W also faced (or faces) a civil claim from B related to the road through B's property.  It would be interesting to know how the decision to dismiss the trespass charge will affect the civil proceeding.  Was it correct to find that W could establish a right to trespass on B's property by building his own road, even after he had asked for and was denied permission to do so? The Road Access Act may protect use of existing roads, but does it effectively empower a landlocked landowner to use a new road as long as that landowner can manage to get the road built on the neighbour's lands?  And will the court hearing the civil claim be bound by the ruling made by the Justice of the Peace in the trespass case, even if it is incorrect?

Read the decision at: R. v. Weber.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Normal Farm Practices Protection Board examines tree clearing as a normal farm practice

Pursuant to Section 6 of the Farming and Food Protection Act (the "Act") in Ontario, municipal by-laws do not to apply to restrict a normal farm practice carried on as part of an agricultural operation.  Farmers or other persons wanting to engage in a normal farm practice (that is part of an agricultural operation) can apply to the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board (the "Board") for a determination as to whether a specific practice is a "normal farm practice" for the purposes of Section 6.  If the Board makes a determination that a specific practice is a "normal farm practice", then the municipal by-law in question, by operation of the Act, would not restrict the practice.

Recently the Board heard an application by landowners in the County of Norfolk who contended that the removal of trees from an irregularly shaped bush to "straighten up a field" was a normal farm practice.  On that basis, the landowners argued that the County of Norfolk's Forest Conservation By-Law did not apply to restrict the removal of trees for that purpose.

The County disagreed.  The County had already issued a stop work order to the landowners previously when a portion of the bush on their property was removed in 2013.  It advised the landowners at that time that, in the future, an application for a permit would be required for any future removal.  Late in 2015, a complaint was received about further removal of trees and a second stop work order was issued to the landowners.  The landowners appealed that stop work order to the By-law Appeals Committee for the County, but were unsuccessful.

The Board determined that, in this case, the tree clearing activities proposed by the landowners did not constitute a "normal farm practice".  The landowners did not call expert evidence on the question of whether tree removal to straighten a field is a normal farm practice.  They did not call evidence from any other agricultural operators to demonstrate that similar tree removal had been done under similar circumstances.  Absent evidence to support the notion that the tree removal was a "normal farm practice", the Board found that the landowners failed to prove on a balance of probabilities that it was a "normal farm practice".

Also, the Board went on to find that, in any event, the landowners' tree removal would not have been a "normal farm practice" because they had cleared more trees than "would be reasonably expected to be necessary to straighten a field line and, in fact, it amounts to an attempt to clear cut a portion of the bush."  And further, the Board noted as an aside (obiter dicta) that the County's tree by-law does not actually restrict a "normal farm practice" to the extent that straightening a field is a normal farm practice.  The Board referred to the fact that the by-law provides for a permit process and that the requirement of a permit, the application fee and any condition of reforestation or payment in lieu "are reasonable and would not be restrictive."

On that point, it is worth noting the following evidence given by the County's By-Law officer at the Board hearing:

Mr. [B]’s evidence was that Mr. and Mrs. [M] would have required a permit under Section 4 of the by-law in order to authorize the tree removal that they had done and wished to continue, that approximately 80% of exemption permits are supplied with respect to agricultural operations and that he has not seen any denied when they went to Council.

The present application fee for a permit for a Council Exemption is $255.00.  The permit may come with conditions requiring reforestation or a fee payable to the Municipality in lieu of reforestation in the approximate amount of $1,900.00 per acre.  These monies are placed in a separate fund and are used for reforestation elsewhere in the County. [emphasis added]

Landowners who intend to remove trees from woodlot and woodland areas need to be aware of any applicable municipal tree by-laws or other regulations.  While compliance with by-law or regulatory requirements may seem a nuisance to farmers and landowners who have no intention of clear-cutting bush and only want to "straighten up a field", the price of obtaining necessary permits is often much less expensive than the consequences of non-compliance.  Although the Board's decision does not indicate that any prosecution was launched against the landowners, failure to comply with tree by-laws may result in the laying of charges and, in the case of a conviction, in greater restrictions on future tree removal than would have been applicable in the first place.

Read the decision at: Meijaard v Corporation of Norfolk County.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Neighbour loses claim for damages from biosolid application on field next door

The Plaintiff in this case sued her neighbour over concerns that her well water had been contaminated by the agricultural field application of municipal sewage waste or biosolids.  The neighbour actually leased the land to a farm operation, so he commenced third party claims against both his tenant (the farm operation) and the company that applied the biosolids.  The Plaintiff's claims were based on nuisance and negligence.

Justice Heeney of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed the Plaintiff's claim on the basis that the application of biosolids did not cause the Plaintiff's well to become contaminated.  Put another way, the Plaintiff failed to prove, on a balance of probabilities, that the application of the biosolids caused contamination of the well.  In his decision, it was not necessary for Justice Heeney to address the question of who might be liable for what.

Evidence in this case was heard over 6 days of trial, and included testimony concerning the application of the biosolids.  The application project had been approved by the Ministry of the Environment ("MOECC") following extensive soil testing and other measures.  The biosolids were to be applied to 90 acres of wheat stubble.  The Plaintiff had a 14-foot dug well just a few feet north of the southerly boundary of her property, in close proximity to the neighbouring field.  On the day that the biosolid application commenced, the Plaintiff said water from her shower was "brown and stinky", and smelled like "vomit material".

The Plaintiff's water was tested following the application of the biosolids.  There was some detection of coliform, but there had been positive readings of coliform in the well water prior to the biosolid application project.  No e.coli was detected.  The absence of e.coli in the water was, in Justice Heeney's opinion, the single most significant fact in the case.  There was opinion evidence that, if biosolids had entered the well, there would have been a very high level of e.coli in the water that would have been detectable when the water was tested.  E.coli is specifically used in water testing as "being the most accurate indicator of fecal contamination - sewage or fecal contamination".  Justice Heeney concluded that the biosolid application did not contaminate the Plaintiff's well.

Read the decision at: Marshall v. Shaw.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Supreme Court of Canada discusses the law of adverse possession in recent case

Property law cases do not often reach the Supreme Court of Canada, but a recent adverse possession case out of British Columbia did make it to Canada's highest court.   While certain aspects of the decision are limited in application to British Columbia, the Supreme Court does review the law of adverse possession generally in its reasons.

The Claimants in the case in question claimed title to a parcel of land in Nelson, BC that is adjacent to a separate parcel they purchased in 1992.  The registered owner of the disputed parcel was the provincial Crown.  The Claimants alleged that they and their predecessors in title had continuously possessed the disputed parcel since the early 20th century and, therefore, that ownership had transferred to them by the passage of time.  The Claimants commenced an action for a declaration that the provincial Crown was not the owner of the parcel (and could not transfer it to the City of Nelson), and also brought a petition for judicial investigation of their title under the BC Land Title Inquiry Act.

The headnote from the Supreme Court's decision describes the law of adverse possession as follows: 
"Adverse possession is a longstanding common law device by which the right of the prior possessor of land, typically the holder of registered title, may be displaced by a trespasser whose possession of the land goes unchallenged for a prescribed period of time. To meet the test of establishing adverse possession, the act of possession must be open and notorious, adverse, exclusive, peaceful, actual and continuous. The adverse possessor who successfully obtains title need not always be the same person whose adverse possession triggered the running of the limitation period."

At first instance, the judge hearing the matter granted a summary dismissal application by the City of Nelson, having found that there was an evidentiary gap with respect to the question of continuous possession.  A claim for adverse possession of someone else's property must rest on possession of land by a claimant for a specified period of time that open and notorious, adverse (vis-a-vis the registered owner), exclusive, peaceful, actual and continuous.  The judge at first instance found that there was an interruption in continuity of adverse possession from 1916-1920, resulting in the dismissal of the claim.  The Court of Appeal for BC reversed the decision to dismiss the claim, finding that there was evidence of continuous adverse possession from 1909-1923.  On that basis, the Court of Appeal remitted the matter back to the BC Supreme Court for final determination of the proceedings.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the Court of Appeal decision and restored the dismissal of the adverse possession claim made by the judge at first instance.  The Supreme Court found that the original finding of an evidentiary gap could not be set aside by the Court of Appeal based on the evidence.  While the Court of Appeal's finding that there was continuous adverse possession from 1909-1923 was reasonable, the Supreme Court found that the original judge's finding of the gap from 1916-1920 was not open to second-guessing by the Court of Appeal.  Absent a palpable and overriding error, the factual findings of the original judge hearing the matter could not be disturbed.

In this particular case, the time period in the between 1909 and 1923 was important because the claimants had to prove continuous adverse possession of the land either for a period of 20 years leading up to 1930-31 (the date at which the disputed parcel was escheated to the Crown because the company that was at the time the registered owner was dissolved) or for a period of 60 years leading up to the 1970s (when the law in BC was changed to prevent adverse possession going forward).  The onus was on the Claimants to prove continuous adverse possession during the relevant periods, and any gap in the evidence would be fatal to the claim.  A gap was found and the claim failed.

In its reasons, the Supreme Court of Canada also addressed the issue of inconsistent use.  At Common Law, there has been a requirement that a possessor's use of the disputed land must have been inconsistent with the "true owner's" present or future enjoyment of the land.  To be truly adverse, the possession must "entail a use of the property that is inconsistent with the true owner's intended use of the land."  However, while that inconsistent use requirement has appeared in the jurisprudence in Ontario, it has formed no part of the law in British Columbia.

The Supreme Court also commented on the distinction between "continuous possession" and "continuous occupation".  The Claimants suggested that the judge at first instance had erred in finding the evidentiary gap by confusing possession and occupation.  They argued that proof of continuous occupation of land is not required to prove continuous possession of land.  The Supreme Court acknowledged that "possession" does not require continuous occupation - a person may possess land in a manner sufficient to support a claim to title of the land while choosing to use the land intermittently or sporadically.  However, the Supreme Court found that the apparently interchangeable use of the terms "possession" and "occupation" by the judge at first instance did not change the outcome of the case.  The only evidence of "possession" before the judge was "occupation" (no form of possession less than that was posited to the judge).

Read the decision at: Nelson (City) v. Mowatt.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Court of Appeal overturns summary judgment, allows historical contamination claim to proceed

D Corp. owned a property that was used as a gas station until 2004.  C Ltd. purchased a nearby property on April 10, 2012 and, on April 28, 2014, commenced an action against D Corp. and the former owners of D Corp.'s property for damages resulting from hydrocarbon contamination.  The contamination was alleged to have migrated from D Corp.'s property to C Ltd.'s property.

After the exchange of pleadings (the Statement of Claim and Statements of Defence by the parties), the Defendants moved for summary judgment to dismiss C Ltd.'s claim on the basis that the applicable limitation period had expired.  They asserted that C Ltd.'s claim had been discovered more than 2 years prior to the commencement of its action.  The judge hearing the motion granted the dismissal, finding that C Ltd. had become aware of sufficient material facts by March 9, 2012.  Alternatively, the motion judge held that C Ltd. had a sufficient basis for an action by March 30, 2012 when soil and groundwater sampling results were made available to C Ltd.  In the further alternative, the motion judge found that, even if C Ltd. did not know about drilling results showing contamination until May, 2012 (i.e. within 2 years of the commencement of the action), C Ltd. should have known of its claim but did not exercise due diligence.

Also, the motion judge rejected C Ltd.'s suggestion that there was a continuing tort that suspended the operation of the limitation period.  The judge saw no evidence that there was ongoing damage or nuisance.  Where there is such ongoing damage or nuisance, the limitation period will not act to bar a claim entirely since the tort (the wrong being done by the party causing the contamination) is ongoing.  The limitation period might still act, though, to limit how far back the claimant's damages claim can extend (i.e. the damages might still be limited to those sustained no more than 2 years before the commencement of the action).

The Court of Appeal reversed the dismissal of the action.  It found that the motion judge was wrong to find that C Ltd. knew or ought to have known of its claim for contamination damages more than 2 years prior to commencing the action.  First, C Ltd.'s knowledge of potential contamination or its suspicion (based on a Phase I ESA) should not have been equated with actual knowledge that its property was contaminated.  Second, the Court of Appeal found that the motion judge improperly ignored relevant circumstances surrounding C Ltd.'s purchase of its property (which was part of a multi-property purchase involving 22 properties).  The Court found that once C Ltd. had waived its conditions on the purchase, it was not reasonable to expect C Ltd. to have sought out information about potential contamination (the test results it obtained in May, 2012); by that point, C Ltd. was bound to complete the purchase of the property.

In making its decision, the Court of Appeal did not rule on C Ltd.'s continuing tort argument.

Read the decision at: Crombie Property Holdings Limited v. McColl-Frontenac Inc. (Texaco Canada Limited).