There's no way Len Gratto is paying a $5,200 fine to Mission city hall for growing cucumbers in his basement.
Gratto - a 67-year-old who has lived for 30 years with his wife in their Mission home - says he's raring to join an imminent class-action lawsuit attacking the municipality's grow-op bylaw inspections.
A number of citizens, led by Mission man Stacy Gowanlock, will allege their homes were illegally searched for pot grow-ops and they were slapped with fees and repair orders costing upward of $10,000 - all on questionable evidence.
Gratto says he's never grown pot, but "laughable" evidence against him consists of pictures of some "dirt" on the basement wall and "a furnace pipe going up into the chimney, where it should be."
"It's upsetting they can do this," Gratto said. "We were growing cucumbers in the basement because they wouldn't take outside."
Gowanlock said he was searched in 2009 and hit with thousands in fees and repair orders despite never growing pot in his home. A lawyer could be filing his civil suit within days, he said.
"I'm going to be the one that steps forward," he said. "It's the whole process. You're violating people's rights."
And in a move that could potentially alter the landscape of drug enforcement in B.C., the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says it will join the battle against Mission but widen the focus into a region-wide challenge to "home grow-op bylaws."
Grow-op bylaw programs, which are based on provincial legislation, allow municipal inspectors to enter homes with abnormally high hydro usage - about 93 kilowatts per day or more - and look for evidence of illegal marijuana grow-ops for public safety reasons. Inspectors don't have to find grow-ops, but if they find supposed residual evidence, such as high mould readings, they levy search fees and order repairs. If homeowners don't comply, homes are tagged under the bylaw and effectively condemned as unsafe, and unsellable.
According to proponents, the bylaws have been phenomenally successful in driving pot production out of the Lower Mainland.
In mid-December, the BCCLA's Micheal Vonn led a delegation to Mission's council, warning grounds for a class-action suit are strong, and searches are "putting innocent people under horrible duress."
David Eby of the BCCLA says council was not receptive and has not responded. Even if the promised citizen-led action against Mission fell apart, the BCCLA would then likely initiate its own case.
"Our concern is the program is very poorly run, and there is no due process around these massive fines," Eby said.
Mission chief administrative officer Glen Robertson said he would not comment on the allegations or threat of litigation.
Documents released to The Province under freedom of information law show Mission has drawn $1.43 million in revenue from Public Safety Inspection Team searches since 2008. From 2008 to 2010, there were 362 searches. In 177 cases, residents were found in contravention of the bylaw. Additionally, there were 98 RCMP grow-op inspections.
Including both RCMP and PSIT searches, inspection fees of $5,200 were levied 275 times. Mission says its inspection program is revenue neutral, and paid back its startup costs by Dec. 31, 2009. Fees include funding for the RCMP, who monitor searches from the sidelines.
Critics such as Gowanlock claim Mission's inspection funding scheme amounts to a "cash grab."
Coun. Jenny Stevens says she initially supported the program, but now believes about half of homeowners inspected are innocent.
"My biggest worry is about 50 per cent of these people were subjected to embarrassment and innuendo," she said. "I'm very concerned about the threat of litigation . . ."
Mission Mayor James Atebe was unavailable for comment but told The Province in a report on this subject last November that he strongly supported the inspection program but was willing to improve it.
"I don't want to lose the tool because it's imperfect," Atebe said. "Also, I don't want to keep the tool if it's encroaching on people's rights."
Another current class-action suit against municipal grow-op bylaws is unfolding in Coquitlam.
One of the litigants, Drew Smith, told The Province he is innocent, and his story is almost identical to the complaints made in Mission. His home was searched, no grow-op evidence was found, fees and repair orders were levied and an allegedly innocent person suffered a damaged reputation.
"I had to get sedatives because I couldn't sleep at night with the stress and embarrassment in the neighbourhood," Smith said.
"Financially, I don't care if I get a dime [in the Coquitlam class-action suit]," he said. "I told my lawyer I don't want to sue anyone but this is not a just process, and it has to stop."
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