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Editorial — Fighting city hall is a tough fight to win
A B.C. Court of Appeal ruling on the Coulter Berry building, which stated unanimously that Langley Township council had the right to proceed with approval of the building under a Heritage Alteration Permit, makes one thing very clear — it is very hard to fight city hall in court, and come out on the winning end.
This should cause those thinking of fighting municipal decisions in court to think carefully and research widely before commencing a lawsuit. Chances are, they will spend a lot of money on lawyers and court costs, and be unsuccessful in the end.
Chief Justice Robert Bauman, who wrote the Court of Appeal decision, states clearly that municipal councils have a considerable degree of latitude in making land use decisions. This latitude has been granted both in common law (past court decisions), but also through legislation. Thus courts are reluctant to enter the battle between municipalities and aggrieved citizens.
Section 4(1) of the Community Charter, adopted in 2003, states that “The powers conferred on municipalities and their councils under this Act or the Local Government Act must be interpreted broadly in accordance with the purpose of those acts and in accordance with municipal purposes.”
Bauman writes in the decision: “The Township (is allowed) some flexibility in administering the strict requirements of the zoning bylaw.”
He agreed with the Township’s legal submission that the Local Government Act’s purpose is “to provide local governments with the flexibility to respond to the differing needs and changing circumstances of their communities.”
Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese said, on hearing that the Township’s appeal was successful, that “This ruling brings clarity to municipalities’ decision-making powers.”
Indeed it does.
While some people who oppose some municipal decisions may feel the courts and legislature are conspiring to deprive individuals of rights to disagree and challenge a council decision, in fact that isn’t the case. As the chief justice notes, there has been a conscious move by all arms of government to ensure that municipalities have flexibility. It makes far more sense for locally-elected officials to make decisions on matters in their community, instead of federal or provincial legislators, or judges.
There is accountability as well. Those who disagree with a council decision can work towards voting in new members of council. In just a few months, Langley Township voters will choose the nine members of the next council, which (for the first time) will be in power for four years. This court decision emphasizes the importance of holding councillors accountable at the ballot box.
There is one other reason that challenging municipal decision in court isn’t often a good idea. Municipalities can spend unlimited funds on lawyers and court proceedings. They are funded by taxpayers. Any individual or group wishing to challenge them must pay out of their own pockets. The advantage clearly is with municipalities.