Rick McGowan was met with hand shakes, pats on the back and a hug as he walked out of a Kamloops courtroom on Friday, with his jacket slung over his right arm and a look of relief on his face.
The director of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club and his fellow club members attended B.C. Supreme Court that afternoon, where Justice Joel Groves ruled the B.C. government and the Douglas Lake Cattle Company will pay the club’s legal fees in its fight for public access to two Nicola Valley lakes.
Last December, in what McGowan described as a “precedent-setting” case, Groves ruled roads in the area of Minnie and Stoney lakes that had been claimed as the property of Douglas Lake were actually public — and that the ranch cannot lawfully block access to either lake, which are public property.
The club’s court costs — said to be more than $350,000 — will be split 50/50 between the province and cattle company.
“It’s an unusual order to make, but the courts found the club has been acting in the public’s interest,” said Chris Harvey, the fish and game club’s lawyer.
According to McGowan, the province had initially been seeking a 25/75 per cent court costs split.
Groves said he ordered the costs be split evenly with the government because, as was shown in court, the province chose not to respond to the illegal actions of Douglas Lake, leading to the litigation.
McGowan said he is not sure how much money the club will be reimbursed, noting it has spent about $160,000 — accumulated through donations and fundraisers — but still owes about $150,000 in legal bills.
The club’s counsel has provided the club with a 50 per cent discount, but, McGowan said, there are various ongoing legal costs.
“If we can pay off our legal bills, that’d be awesome,” McGowan said, noting Friday hearing alone cost $1,000.
He said he expects the court case to cost all three parties involved — the club, cattle company and province — about $1.5 million.
According to Groves, the fish and game club met the criteria required for the order as it was acting in the public interest and had no monetary benefit to gain from the case.
“They acted to right what they felt was a longstanding wrong against everyone in British Columbia,” Groves said.
He said members of the club tried for years to compel the provincial government to act as a responsible caretaker of public resources against a corporation that had unilaterally taken provincial property for its own economic benefit and was denying citizens access to their property.
December’s decision was the culmination of a protracted trial spanning six years, pitting a wealthy private ranch — the Douglas Lake Cattle Company, owned by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke (husband of a Walmart heir and owner of the Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche, Arsenal and other professional sports franchises) — against the B.C. government and the club in a fight over access the two small fishing lakes.
While the matter of who will cover legal fees has been settled, Harvey said there is still work to be done in the quest to enforce public access to Minnie and Stoney lakes.
“He [Groves] did say that has to be done by a separate application,” Harvey said. “All we know is that there is access to both of these lakes now, but the details of it will need to be worked out later.”
In court, Groves said any enforcement provisions could only be ordered after a separate application is made and a period of non-compliance has happened. He said at this point it’s unlikely any enforcement order would be made as he understands his December ruling is under appeal.
The ultimate goal for the club, McGowan said, is to ensure all lakes in B.C. remain public.
“We’re hoping that the B.C. government is going to take note and not allow the privatization of public lakes in the future,” McGowan said, adding that he hopes the government will take that stance if the club is successful with its next lake access case.
The club is suing Corbett Lake Lodge, Douglas Lake Cattle Company and the province of British Columbia for allegedly blocking public access to Corbett Lake.
McGowan said no court date has been set yet in that case and the club is in the process of requesting documents from the provincial government.
— with files from the Merritt Herald