You own it, but you don’t really own it. That’s the only way to describe property laws in Canada.
Believe it or not, property rights are not protected in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This means that government, at virtually all levels, can expropriate your land if deemed necessary.
It’s not uncommon to flick on the news and hear about someone desperately trying, usually fruitlessly, to keep their property, because the government is building a highway or some other structure and a house is in the way.
When incidents like this occur it makes the news, and rightfully so. To an everyday taxpayer, the idea of having land snatched away by the government seems ludicrous and wrong. How can someone force you to sell or abandon your home without permission?
Now, common law dictates that a government compensate the homeowner after expropriation. But often the sentimental value of a home is worth far more to someone than compensation based on market value.
It seems strange that in a country considered to be “free,” a piece of property that you spent so much money on, that you put so much work into, can be taken by the people elected to be your representatives.
Of course, most people will never have to deal with the possibility of expropriation, but every landowner must deal with municipal bylaws. Just as with expropriation, these bylaws can stir debate about the freedom of homeowners to do what they like with their property.
Such a debate has arisen in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, since the town council made a Facebook post concerning shipping containers. Some people like using these metal structures as storage facilities. They don’t rot like wooden sheds and can be painted to look esthetically pleasing.
But the council wanted people to know that these things can’t be used on residential properties.
“As we strive to beautify and modernize our community in the future, please know that industrial shipping containers do not represent this direction … and in the meantime they devalue your own property and your neighbours’,” states the Facebook post.
That set off a social media debate, with some pointing out that they should be able to put whatever they want in their own backyard.
But the Facebook post also notes that shipping containers don’t meet National Building Code of Canada requirements. Therefore, permits for the use of the containers will not be handed out.
The council’s claim that shipping containers “devalue your own property and your neighbours’,” also makes for good debate.
Understandably, homeowners don’t want their neighbourhood to look shabby. But how do you determine whether or not a property looks acceptable? A neighbour could look at your yard and see a bunch of junk, where you see a collection of valuables.
Perhaps your neighbour keeps a “wrecked” car in his driveway. In his eyes, it could be a classic worth restoring.
When councillors receive complaints about a neighbor’s messy yard or unsightly house, what should be done?
Just such a situation unfolded at the July North West River council meeting. One resident told the council that something needed to be done about his neighbour’s property, which has stuff piled in the yard.
Mayor Art Williams expressed the sentiment of a lot of councillors across the province and the country, when he explained the difficulty of dealing with private property issues.
He used an example of a homeowner with a shabby, unpainted house. Should the council try force that person to repaint it? Perhaps, said Williams, the homeowner has fallen on hard times and can’t afford to repaint or refurbish the house.
In a later interview with The Labradorian, Williams also explained you can’t cherry pick which regulations to enforce. If you tell one homeowner to clean up their mess, then you’ll have to tell everyone else with unkempt properties to do the same. That could be a tall order for a small town.
There’s no doubt that land owners shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they want with their property. Nobody lives in a bubble; the state of someone’s property can affect the entire neighbourhood and the town.
But where should we draw the line on property freedom? Is telling people that they can’t use a shipping container as a shed too strict? Should governments be able to expropriate private land if it’s deemed beneficial for the greater good?
From the municipal level to the provincial and national level, people need to have a discussion about which rights we should and should not have.