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GNWT, Fort Smith spend three years arguing over portable washrooms


The Town of Fort Smith will this month try to end a years-long dispute with the territory’s Department of Lands over portable washrooms for the local snowboarding club.

Town councillors are expected to receive an update regarding the ongoing issue at a meeting on Tuesday, with snowboarders anxious to know how the dispute will affect their season ahead.

The argument involves two washrooms on wheels – referred to by the town as wash cars – at the top of Riverside Park, where Fort Smith’s snowboarding hill is located.

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The washcars occupy land that is within the town’s boundary but remains, technically, territorial land.

In October 2017, the town – which hosted snowboarding at the next year’s Arctic Winter Games – submitted an application for the land in question to be transferred to Fort Smith.

Two years later, in October 2019, then-lands minister Louis Sebert told the town its application had been denied as the land use “was in contravention with the Town of Fort Smith’s community plan … which prohibits uses involving human habitation or occupancy.”

The department told the town to apply again with some changes, like relocating change rooms “outside the environmental zone boundary.” (The wash cars serve as washrooms, change rooms, and storage units for snowboarding equipment.)

Moving the wash cars to comply with that requirement is expected to cost up to $15,000. The town would prefer to leave them in place.

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At a November 2019 town council meeting, Mayor Lynn Napier cited the wash cars’ fate as an example of “the larger issue of Commissioner’s land in municipal boundaries.”

Commissioner’s land is synonymous with land owned by the territory. In the NWT, the territorial government still owns much of the land within each municipality’s boundaries.

Several municipalities, most notably the City of Yellowknife, have voiced discontent with this and urged the territory to hand over control.

‘Mutually agreeable timeline’

Most recently, the wash-car conflict arose again when the Department of Lands sent the town a trespassing notice on September 4 this year.

Town staff told councillors Fort Smith had been given 30 days to move the wash cars, otherwise the department might involve its lawyers.

In response, the town’s options ranged from moving the wash cars to requesting an extension (so youth can use the snowboard park with washrooms this winter) or readying for a legal battle.

Moving the wash cars to the bottom of the hill would place them safely on town property, but make it harder to provide them with sewer, water, and power access.

Asking the department to leave the wash cars in peace for the season involves submitting an application costing $400. This is the option councillors ultimately chose.

Further complicating matters, the town’s attempts to build permanent facilities for the snowboard park have been mired in a separate conflict with the territory.

According to town officials, the GNWT says that development can’t go ahead because it conflicts with the town’s own zoning bylaw, which governs what can or cannot be built in the “slide zone” near the river.

But town staff say the territorial government is misinterpreting the town’s bylaw.

The Department of Lands told Cabin Radio it is working with the town “to establish a mutually agreeable timeline to remove the remaining structures from the snowboard park,” adding the department was “unable to comment further because this is an active file.”

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