The city hall letter sent on May 11 was clear – the company that owned an abandoned trailer park taken over by squatters had 17 days to clean up the site and remove all the rubble, or face possible fines.
But rather than signal the end of the troubles at the former Allwood Estates mobile home park, documents obtained by The News show the letter only marked the start of a seven-month-long process that saw the property’s owner repeatedly put off city demands to clean up the property and resolve worries about fire, trash and property crime.
The records, obtained through a freedom of information request, also show the city was warned about fire danger at the site just days before the second of three blazes sparked by squatters last year.
The documents also show the property owner faced no penalties for failing to meet three separate city-imposed deadlines, although they were penalized for demolishing buildings without a permit.
Since at least 2008, the nine-acre treed lot tucked behind Real Canadian Superstore at 2800 Allwood St./32633 Simon Ave. has been slated for development by its owner, Vancouver-based Onni Group.
The company first intended to build a mixed condo/commercial space, but those plans had changed by 2012, when rezoning took place to allow the company to build more than 200 townhomes. By then, most of the residents of the trailer park had already moved out, and over the next two years, the rest would follow. However, the trailers remained behind, with little work done on the property and no security.
In February 2015, a fire destroyed a trailer that appeared to have been used by squatters. But the property didn’t become a bylaw concern until May, when a complaint prompted a visit by a city bylaw officer, who observed holes in fences, siding torn off trailers and rooms filled with food debris.
In a letter sent Nov. 11, the officer, Navi Sidhu, told Onni it was in contravention of the city’s Good Neighbour Bylaw, and failure to clean up the site and either board up or apply to demolish the trailers by May 28 “may result in fines.”
That deadline was just the first to come and go. When it did, with Onni saying they were preparing to tear down the trailers but dealing with hazardous materials like asbestos, the city ordered the company to fix its fence and stop people from entering the property.
On June 10, the city fielded a complaint in which a local business owner – whose name is redacted – relayed ongoing concerns about property crime and “a tragic scene” in the camps, with plenty of needles and drug use. The person also warned about the possibility of a fire in the tinder-dry conditions.
Four days later, one of the mobile homes caught fire.
That blaze triggered a demand for Onni to demolish all the trailers and remove the debris by June 26, and to post 24-hour security at the site until the demolition process began.
The demolition of the trailers did not start until June 26, the second deadline for the cleanup’s completion. Only then did a number of homeless people start to pick up their belongings.
On July 3, a bylaw officer visited the site and found all the trailers had been destroyed, although a shed and outbuilding remained. The bylaw officer was told the debris was set to be hauled away the following week. But the demolitions also took place without a permit, which triggered a fine of $4,750.
In mid-October, more than three months after Onni tore down the trailers and promised to clean up the site, another complaint triggered a return to the property by Sidhu, who noted the continuing presence of construction debris, as well as evidence that people were still camping on the site.
On Oct. 19, bylaw services manager Magda Laljee wrote that the city was dealing with Onni under the Good Neighbour Bylaw provisions involving unsightly premises, and that Onni was “well aware of the campers” as well as their options should they wish to explore the use of the trespass provisions.
Forty-eight hours later, flames shot up a tree next to Master Lee’s Tae Kwon Do School, whose owner had, in mid-August, warned about the possibility of homeless people in a camp next to his building starting a fire. The blaze was quickly doused, but not before the business suffered about $6,000 damage.
That fire triggered more visits by bylaw officers, who documented multiple homeless camps, and noted “a very large accumulation of garbage and discarded material.”
On Oct. 28, Sidhu sent Onni a letter requesting the removal of all garbage and material from the site by Nov. 12, 2015. Again, the possibility of fines was mentioned should the deadline be missed.
Like the earlier deadlines, Nov. 12 came and went, with Onni calling the city to say cleanup would begin the next day. Onni was told that “fines may be issued,” but none resulted.
The following day, on Nov. 13, Sidhu observed that much of the garbage had been brought to a central pile. But while three homeless campers were seen on the property, no contractors remained behind.
November saw Onni work sporadically on the site while attempting to convince the squatters still living on the property to leave.
Finally on Nov. 30, a little more than six months after the first deadline for Onni to have the property cleaned up, Sidhu visited the site and reported contractors were on site “actively cleaning and clearing the property.” The work would continue into December.
At present, the property is a construction site, with little evidence of the squatters, fires or crime that dominated life on Allwood Street for much of the last year.
Although it was fined for failing to obtain a permit prior to demolition of the trailers, Onni was never fined for the state of its property.
City manager George Murray said the city works with property owners, and fines are just one way the city tries to get them to comply with Abbotsford’s bylaws.
“The city’s bylaw services department worked with Onni in our scheme of progressive enforcement to try to ensure compliance with Onni’s lands. Onni was working towards that until they demolished their trailers without a demolition permit, at which time we fined them for doing so,” he said.
“The challenge for cities when it comes to bylaw enforcements is there’s a fine line between under-enforcing and over-enforcing, and the city tries to use a progressive approach to find the right line between those two.”
Onni did not respond to requests for comment.