The B.C. Supreme Court has declared that the Douglas Trail Road between D’Arcy and Seton Portage — commonly known as Highline Road — is a provincial highway.
In her decision dated for Thursday (Feb. 7), Justice Loryl D. Russell determined that the provincial government had previously spent money to maintain the road, and therefore should carry highway status.
The ruling means that the province will be responsible for maintaining the 24-kilometre stretch of road and bringing it up to provincial standard.
The decision came in response to a petition filed by Wolfgang Skutnik, whose residence accesses the road, to declare it as a public highway. Several other area residents supported his petition.
Skutnik said he was “excited” by the decision, as he’s been fighting for several years to have the road recognized as a highway.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Skutnik. “It was all based on law and the evidence was there for the ruling. That was the whole reason I continued with this for eight years — that it was based on law, on Section 42 of the Transportation Act, and I felt that, logically, this would be the outcome if it came to court.”
Russell also determined that the route has been regularly travelled, another requirement for definition of a public highway. The Douglas Trail is the only road connection between the two communities north of Pemberton.
Among the respondents opposed to the petition was the St’at’imc Chiefs Council (SCC), which argued that insufficient evidence had been provided for the road to meet the definition of a provincial public highway, while expressing concern that bringing the road up to highway standard could interfere with traditional First Nations access to the area.
The council also claimed it would be unconstitutional for the B.C. Government to declare the Highline a highway without first consulting the SCC.
However, Justice Russell disagreed with the SCC on both fronts, stating in her decision that it “does not have standing to raise the issue of its cultural grievances with the Crown on this petition.”
In reaching her decision, Russell also found that the province had at various times dating back to 1969 provided “significant” public funding to maintain the road, enough so that it met B.C.’s definition of a public highway.
“The (Ministry of Transportation) devoted public money to major structural improvements upon the Douglas Trail Road, making these expenditures significant,” wrote Russell.
Among the expenditures highlighted by Russell were $250,000 towards the road in 1969, $20,000 for a reconstruction of the Portage Bridge the following year, plus an annual allocation from the ministry to the Seton Chamber of Commerce in more recent years for the chamber to upkeep the road.
Russell addressed many responses to the petition before arriving at her decision, including one from Pemberton council stating that the road “is considered to be an important access route in the region for residents, businesses, tourists and emergency situations.”
Area C director Susie Gimse echoed those sentiments Tuesday (Feb. 12), thinking back to how critical the road was during the 2003 flood. She said there was “no question” that any improvements to the Highline would be a benefit to her constituents.
“That road is integral to our emergency management plan, for instance,” she said. “In 2003, that was our only access route out of the community. And, it’s important for communities along the lake as well to travel into Pemberton and the Lower Mainland.
“It’s great to have the issue resolved in terms of who’s responsible for the road.”
As of Tuesday, SCC chair Garry John, chief of the Seton Lake First Nation, said the group has yet to receive its legal summary on the matter and will not be commenting until that time.
Meanwhile, a Ministry of Transportation spokesperson said in an email that “the ministry and its legal counsel will be studying this recent ruling and determining next steps.”
—with files from Wendy Fraser, Lillooet News