The Deka Lake and District Volunteer Fire Hall will not be available for community use following an abrupt vote by the Cariboo Regional District board last week that reversed its earlier decision to explore dual-use options for the facility.
Deka Lake Volunteer Fire Department chief Al Boyce spoke about the use of the hall at an in-camera CRD meeting Friday.
The details of the conversation were not made public but CRD Chief Administrative Officer John MacLean confirmed Tuesday that plans to explore dual-use options of the hall were now off the table.
“The board is resolved to dedicate the Deka Lake Fire Department hall for fire purposes only,” MacLean said. “We are not going to look at dual-use options.”
The news came as a shock to members of the Deka Lake and District Ratepayers Association, who have been pushing for access to the upper hall since August when they were told by Boyce and the CRD that community members could no longer use the space for events and gatherings.
More than a dozen ratepayer members attended Friday’s board meeting in Williams Lake to plead their case but were asked to leave when the in-camera portion of the meeting began.
Ratepayers secretary Chris McGregor told the Free Press that the group was “polite but angry” and were hoping to show the CRD that community use of the hall was supported by “more than just two people.”
“They were upset we were there and we were upset that we didn’t get to ask questions,” McGregor said, noting that when one member said he wouldn’t leave, Chair Margo Wagner threatened to phone the police.
McLean said he would not comment on whether or not a call to the police was considered.
“A group of people came in, they weren’t on the agenda and they weren’t an approved delegation,” he said. “The board got to the part of the business that was in camera and they were asked to leave and they left.”
Willow Macdonald, area director for Lone Butte – Interlakes, tabled a motion to keep Boyce’s discussion with the board open to the public but it was defeated.
The use of the upper hall space has been discussed several times at the CRD since it first came to light in August when community members were told the property was off-limits to the public.
According to documents provided by the ratepayers, members were initially told by Boyce and other fire department members that the space was needed for department training.
When brought to the CRD for discussion – including a passionate plea by Macdonald to allow the community to use the space after more than a year of COVID isolation – CRD staff said it was a matter of liability that the hall was not up to code for dual-use occupancy.
In March, the board voted to direct staff to explore what would need to be upgraded in order to bring the hall up to dual-occupancy code.
Longtime Deka resident and ratepayers treasurer Lorna Wiebe said the hall was originally built and funded in the early 1980s by members of the community as a fire hall and community centre. The hall and the 14-acre property was taken over by the CRD in 1998 and at that time became funded by taxes.
Wiebe said activities such as bingo and fitness classes have taken place at the upper hall for many years with no issues, and that groups using the space have always been mindful of fire department business taking precedence.
“The original purpose was to build that hall so we had a community centre,” Wiebe said. “If it was strictly to be a fire hall, why did they allow men’s and women’s washrooms? Why did they put a kitchen in, why did they put a bar in?”
Wiebe said she didn’t understand why, if it’s an issue of safety and liability, the CRD is not also clamping down on other halls – like the Mountain Spruce Hall at Sulphurous Lake – that are also not up to dual-occupancy standards.
“It’s just not fair,” she said, noting the issue has caused some major strife within the community. “After all these years of being able to do stuff and just bang – it’s gone.”
MacLean said the CRD will be undertaking an “examination” of all their halls to ensure they are up to code and safe for public use.
In addition to not being able to hold activities in the upper hall, the ratepayers have been told they have to remove a large Sea-Can that is used to collect recyclables from the community to help fund improvements in the area.
McGregor said they would not be doing so until they had received an official eviction notice from the CRD. MacLean said an official notice would be forthcoming.
Lack of communication from the CRD on the issue has been one of the biggest concerns over the past several months for Macdonald, who said the way it has been handled is “not good public policy.”
“I’ve always wanted the CRD to talk to my community, to actually stand up and say, ‘this is what we’re doing, this is why and this is how we’re going to work with you in the future to help,’” Macdonald said. “Nobody ever did that for nine months, and that’s what I object to.”
The ratepayers’ executive will be meeting within the next few weeks to determine the next steps on behalf of the community. A survey sent out to community members in Deka Lake asking if residents want the executive to continue working towards regaining access to the upper hall received 246 responses in support and seven opposed.