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Vernon couple in a dispute with the city over living in their RV – Okanagan

A Vernon, B.C., couple living in their RV have been in a battle with the city and bylaw department for over and year and a half, and now, the city is taking drastic action.

Lee and Sondra Watkins have been living out of their fifth-wheel RV on Sandra’s parents’ 4.3-acre property since May of last year, after the home they previously rented in Coldstream was put up for sale.

“During the month of April, we started to work on a plan — started building a site, purchased the fifth wheel, and then by May 1st, we we’re in the fifth wheel and all set up here,” said Lee Watkins.

The pair says they looked for other housing options, but very few of the available rentals accepted pets. Watkins says he and his wife did their research before making their decision.

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“As far as we knew, being that the property is ALR, we figured you can have a secondary residence that is an RV on ALR land, and we didn’t think that because it’s within city limits that it would cause an issue,” said Watkins.

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According to Vernon bylaw, an RV is not considered a dwelling unit and the use of an RV as permanent, year-round accommodation is prohibited. Vernon city council gave them a temporary exemption from the rule, but now the city wants them out.

“They were fully aware of that, we received a complaint back in May of 2022 and we’ve been working with them since then,” said Vernon Mayor Victor Cumming.

“They’ve signed compliance agreements saying that they are going to move the RV. Council was very open in the beginning, ‘yes okay, as long as you’re gone by April 2023, that will be fine.’ That got pushed to June, then that got pushed to the end of August.”

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The reason for the delay is because the couple had a rental space lined up in Armstrong, but that fell through. They say they are continuing to look for places that will allow them to bring their horse, two goats, two cats, a pair of rabbits and their dog, but it hasn’t been easy.

“Where are we supposed to go during a housing crisis that isn’t going to cost us $4,000 a month and take our pets,” said Watkins.

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“For us, we just wanted a temporary solution to save some money, and eventually find our own property to take our animals.”

The couple has now been handed $750 in fines from bylaw staff since June, and Vernon’s mayor says the penalties will only increase the longer the dispute goes on.

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“It’ll continue,” expressed Cumming.

“We have a progressive enforcement process, they’ve been fully aware of that, and they’ve indicated to us that they would move it and of course they have not.”

The couple adds that they have received the support of their nearby neighbours, and the community, after going public with their story.

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“We’ve had so much support from our neighbours, they’ve come over here to the property to introduce themselves, we’ve even had offers to put our animals on neighbouring land just for grazing,” said Sondra Watkins.

“They’ve all been so wonderful; we have a really good community behind us.”

Since then, they’ve started a petition which has gotten over 2,300 signatures from those around the province in support of them. They hope the city will extend their exemption, or possibly change their stance considering the housing shortage.

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“We have a CSA-approved holding tank for our septic, it’s being pumped out by a company, we had our electrical professionally installed to make sure there’s no major fire risk, we’ve been very responsible in setting this up,” said Sondra Watkin.

“It is not a derelict structure that our neighbours have to look at. We keep the area very clean and we’re doing the best we can when there’s nowhere really for us to go.”

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