A property owner and her family from Vancouver Island are up in arms over a $35,000 bill she was held responsible for after her land was registered as a heritage site.
"We felt invaded," said Louise Allix.
Allix was required by law to hire an archeology team last year — to dig up the family property — before she was allowed to build a house just outside of Parksville. Bones and aboriginal artifacts were found, but her son said not much has been done with that discovery.
"It's just a box full of artifacts — that aren’t even on display," said Tim Allix. "If the B.C. government had to pay $35,000 for this, they wouldn't do it. They're saying 'Ah, let's just pass this on to the landowner.'"
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Under the province's Heritage Conservation Act, landowners whose property has been designated a heritage site cannot build until archeologists have done an assessment and removed any First Nations artifacts or human remains — at the landowner's expense.
Individual violators face possible fines of up to $2,000 or six months in jail for altering a heritage site and up to $50,000 or two years in jail for damaging one.
"I never would have imagined that there would be bones under the ground," said Louise, who has lived on the property for 40 years, in a neighbourhood where there are several other homes.
"We had a garden here and dug it up all the time and never found anything."
No system to inform landowners
Many B.C. residents don't know their land has been designated, because there is no system in place to inform them. The province keeps the database of sites that are reported to them, by First Nations and other interested parties, but that information is not shown on land title documents.
There are now 38,000 registered sites with some 2,000 new ones added every year. The minister responsible, Kevin Krueger, acknowledged that the lack of disclosure has been a long-standing problem.
"It's an ongoing issue," said Krueger. "We are carefully working through how to address this whole issue."
Beginning in 1965, the Allix family lived in a house on one of three lots, near the Englishman River — an area where the Nanoose First Nation lived several hundred years ago.
In 2007, Louise and her husband Hereward decided to build a smaller house on the lot next to the main family home that they could move into, because, she said, as they got older, they were having trouble with stairs.
Louise said a local archeologist heard of their plans and sent a letter informing them of their obligations, so they hired an archeological consultant to do the work.
"The [house] construction was delayed by months," said Tim, who stands to inherit some of the same property. "Every step of the way there was another permit that had to be applied for."
"Instead of the digging taking two days — which we had thought it was going to be — it was something like two weeks," said Louise. "All these people, crawling about at 80 bucks an hour.
"My mom had to pay for their lunches," Tim added. "It's right on the bill. Accommodation and meals."
Bill 7 times estimate
The original estimate was $4,000. However, Louise said, after the team found part of a human skull, they decided to sift through the dirt for several more days. They also recovered a dog skeleton, several arrowheads and a hand-carved pin.
Her husband was in his 80s and in poor health while this was going on, Louise said. He died last summer, and his son and wife believe the stress hastened his death.
"He broke down and cried one day. He just broke down and he cried. He didn't know how to deal with it," said Tim. "It makes me want to cry — to think of him getting that upset."
Louise said the $35,000 final bill came as a huge shock — and because she lives on a fixed income, she doesn't have the extra money to pay it.
"If the bill were split up among taxpayers — between everybody in the province — it would be peanuts. But for me it's a heck of a lot," said Louise.
"I don't really care who pays it, but it shouldn't be us," said Tim.
The B.C. Real Estate Association has been pushing the government for years to compensate landowners for whatever losses they incur in such cases.
"If society is benefiting from whatever the government is doing, society should pay for it, not the landowner," said CEO Robert Laing. "The cost can be horrendous. And it isn't fair."
Buyer beware, says First Nation
When the B.C. Liberals were in opposition, some of its MLAs also called for full disclosure and compensation.
"Buyer beware," said Wayne Edwards, historian and former chief of the Nanoose First Nation. "That land you are buying may be of historical importance to First Nations."
Edwards said he agrees with the Allix family that every B.C. landowner and buyer whose property might be affected should be told.
"Homeowners should be afforded the courtesy of having that kind of information," said Edwards.
With no system in place, he said, some property owners bulldoze through precious artifacts, because they don't know or care that they are there.
"We've found artifacts in pawn shops and in private collections. From areas that are known archeology sites," he said.
Over the years, there have been several disputes, all across the province. Last year, police were called on a property owner in Oak Bay, near Victoria, who was trying to build $1 million home without the proper site alteration permit.
"Heritage can be preserved or destroyed," Edwards said. "And the biggest problem that we've had is that it's been destroyed."
He believes the cost of preserving heritage should be shared. Otherwise, he said, there is a great incentive for individual property owners to ignore the rules — to avoid getting stuck with the bill.
"A lot of people are saying why should I say anything? And that's unfortunate," he said.
'Heritage can be preserved … it's being destroyed.'—Nanoose First Nation historian Wayne Edwards
Edwards pointed to a plain brown box sitting on property bought by the province in the 1990s at Craig Bay, also near Parksville. The box holds ancient bones, dug up when the area was developed, before the province bought the site to end the dispute between First Nations and the developer planning to build there.
Edwards said that, as the landowner, the province should have re-interred those bones long ago.
"I'll be happy when they are back in the ground," he said. "It saddens me. But the province is broke. They tell us that they are broke and they don't have money for this kind of thing."
Better forgiveness than permission
Even if the government makes changes, Krueger indicated landowners would still bear most of the financial responsibility.
"The ownership of the land on the surface doesn't mean unrestricted control of what happens subsurface when the ground is disturbed," said Krueger. The minister also said the registered sites are just a small fraction of the real number across the province.
Tim is currently unemployed — and expects to face the same hurdles his mother did, if he tries to build on the other empty lot when he inherits it.
"I think it's better to ask forgiveness than permission," he said. "Then say — oops, I didn't know."
Individuals who violate the Heritage Act face possible fines of up to $50,000 or two years in jail for damaging a heritage site, not $2,000 or six months in jail as previously reported in this story.Apr 20, 2010 4:50 PM ET