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Sunshine Valley realtor says changes needed as 40 per cent of property owners cannot vote

Walter Rawlinson says 20 voters were turned away on Oct. 20 election for electoral area director
A sign at the entrance to Sunshine Valley. Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard

A local realtor is crying foul after property owners in Sunshine Valley were not allowed to vote in the fall election for electoral director.

Walter Rawlinson, who sells the majority of the homes in Sunshine Valley with Team 3000 Realty, said around 20 people came to vote at a local polling station for Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) Electoral Area B director on Oct. 20 and were turned away. While the 20 votes may not have swayed the election outcome this year as incumbent Dennis Adamson won with an 87 vote lead over challenger and Sunshine Valley resident Peter Adamo, Rawlinson said it is unfair that those who pay taxes to the FVRD don’t have a say in who will represent them.

Sam and Alverna Stobbe were two of the voters who tried to cast their ballots at the Sunshine Valley polling station on the morning of Oct. 20. They own a recreational property in Huckleberry village, an RV trailer and snowshed they bought in 1996. It’s only an hour and 15 minutes from their home in Abbotsford, where they reside permanently.

When they got to the polling station, copies of their lease documents in tow, the Stobbes were told by voting clerks that they could not vote as there was a corporation registered on the title of their lease.

They were surprised, as were other leaseholders who showed up to vote, as they were under the impression this was the first year they would get to do so, as so-called Non-Resident Property Electors (NRPEs).

“As far as I know, we never had the opportunity to vote like this. So we had the opportunity to vote, we knew who we wanted to vote for and so we went up there. We were disappointed,” Sam said. “It feels like it’s not fair,” Alverna added.

Lynn Orstad, who owns a cabin at Huckleberry which she lives in two to three days a week, was told by a staff member at the FVRD ahead of the election that she would be able to vote. She was also turned away.

“People were driving up from Surrey, people were driving from Vancouver, because they really wanted to participate. They wanted to support their community, doesn’t matter who was going to win or who was going to lose,” she said. “My disappointment was that as a non-resident property owner that does improvements on my property, that contributes to community, I did not have a say.”

The Stobbes and Orstad were not alone in their disappointment. Rawlinson estimates around 20 voters couldn’t cast their ballot.

Each property gets one vote, but because all those whose names appear on a lease needs to be present for voting, this actually meant closer to 40 people traveling to Sunshine Valley on election day. They all own property in Huckleberry, a recreational village in Sunshine Valley.

There are a few reasons why Huckleberry leaseholders thought they would be allowed to vote. First, for a number of reasons unrelated to voting, the majority of the 105 Huckleberry sites had registered their lots with the land titles office. It was a costly process, which means now their names will come up in a title search under ‘registered owner’ of a lease. The ‘registered owner in fee simple’ of the entire Huckleberry village shows as Sunshine Valley Developments Ltd.

“So each person spent about four thousand dollars, out of their pocket, registering their lease…So 98 per cent of all these leases are registered in land titles office,” Rawlinson said.

The leaseholders were also provided an information sheet from the FVRD a few weeks before the election outlining the requirements for Non-Resident Property Electors (NRPEs), meaning voters who own property but do not live full-time in the community.

It states NRPEs who are ‘the holder of a registered lease of the property for a term of at least 99 years’ are entitled to vote. However, nothing in the sheet indicates that having a corporation on title would be problematic for these voters.

NRPE Qualifications and ID Requirements by Ingrid Peacock on Scribd

The villages which make up Sunshine Valley have several kinds of ownership structures including fee simple, strata, equity co-op and lease. In Huckleberry, plots are owned by Sunshine Valley Developments Ltd. and are sold as 999-year leases to individual property owners or corporations.

As a recreational community, Sunshine Valley has many people who qualify as NRPEs. Under fee simple and strata, these property owners both pay property taxes and are allowed to vote. Yet when it comes to leases and equity co-op ownership structures, this right is not as clear.

The Local Government Act lays out what qualifications NRPEs must fulfill to be able to vote. The act states only registered owners of a property, and not ‘individuals holding the property in trust for a corporation or other trust’ are allowed to vote. Another clarification in the act reads as follows: “For clarification, no corporation is entitled to be registered as an elector or have a representative registered as an elector and no corporation is entitled to vote.”

According to Rawlinson, these clauses which mention corporations do not disqualify Huckleberry leaseholders from voting. The FVRD, however, had a different answer on voting day.

In an emailed response to Rawlinson, Schween stated the reason for these electors not being allowed to vote was because a corporation, Sunshine Valley Developments Ltd., was registered on title.

“The Local Government Act, which is the piece of legislation which sets out the rules for general local elections, specifically sets out that if there is a corporation registered on title, none of the owners are eligible to vote as non-resident property owners,” Schween stated.

Jennifer Kinneman, manager of corporate affairs at the FVRD, referred to a government of British Columbia website on voter eligibility when responding to Rawlinson’s complaint. “A person cannot vote on behalf of a corporation, or as a non-resident property elector, based on a property owned wholly or in part by a corporation,” she cited from the website.

Kinneman also said the FVRD confirmed this information with legal counsel and with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

“The ministry does not have a role in determining if specific individuals are eligible to vote in general local elections,” public affairs officer with the ministry Melanie Kilpatrick stated via email. “The FVRD sought legal advice on the specifics of this situation and, on that basis, concluded that those individuals were not entitled to vote.”

Kilpatrick stated there is an option for electors to challenge the validity of the election in court, up to 30 days after the election results were declared. The voters turned away decided not to challenge the election as the 20 votes would not have changed the outcome, Rawlinson said.

Electoral area B director Dennis Adamson said no one has brought these complaints up with him and he doesn’t have enough information to comment on the issue yet. He did say the onus lies with the province on this issue.

“I represent everybody — whether they voted for me or didn’t vote for me or didn’t vote,” he said. “They have not come to me. If the people came to me and wrote me their concerns, I would take their concerns and direct it to those departments myself, if they want to do it that way.”

“At this stage we don’t need to look backwards,” Rawlinson said. “I would like to look forward to the next election four years from now, and say look ‘what do we need to do to make sure everybody who pays taxes votes.”

Orstad, on her end, is getting together with other Huckleberry lease owners to get Sunshine Valley Developments Ltd. to sign off on a document stating individual leaseholders should be able to vote. “That will be negotiating, we’ve got four years to work on it,” she said.

While Rawlinson thinks the FVRD misinterpreted the Local Government Act, he concedes he might be wrong and the language of the act really does prevent non-resident Huckleberry property owners from voting. If this is the case, he said there is something seriously wrong about a government being able to collect taxes yet not give those taxpayers the vote.

And in Sunshine Valley, a community where many own but only live part-time or use their homes as recreational property, it is a sizable number of property owners who are excluded from voting. According to the 2016 census, there are 177 full-time residents and 344 private dwellings. The properties which are under leases are 105 at Huckleberry and 15 at Sumallo, as well as 59 at Alpine Village which are under equity co-op, another form of ownership that doesn’t allow non-resident owners to vote in local elections.

Knowing all of Huckleberry and all of Alpine cannot vote, that would be 164 voters or 47 per cent of property owners in the Valley. In Rawlinson’s estimate, over 40 percent of property owners in the Valley cannot vote.

“Maybe they’re correct. And they’ve interpreted all the information correctly and all the documents correctly, and that, based on the Local Government Act, … 40 per cent or whatever it is, is maybe not allowed to vote based on the law. Well, then what the heck? Why is there a law saying 40 per cent of an entire village can’t vote? And no one is doing anything about it?” he said.

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Walter Rawlinson, realtor in Sunshine Valley, says those who pay taxes on their recreational lease homes should be allowed to vote. Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard