A bandage solution for Canmore’s illegal camping issue?

Residents of a makeshift campground in Canmore will soon be forced to break camp each morning for a period of two hours as town officials attempt to address the issues of illegal camping and affordable housing.

A growing number of vans and RVs have been parked on a roadway along the railway tracks, situated between the Elevation Place recreation centre and Save-On Foods, with some of the campers staying a single night while others have been there for months.

 “That area was widened and improved a bit a couple years ago to allow for more room for recreational vehicles,” explained Mayor John Borrowman. “We’re a tourist town so people are coming and need somewhere to park an RV while they do their shopping or go to a restaurant.”

The effort to improve accessibility for travellers proved attractive to those looking for an inexpensive place to stay. “It became known far-and-wide as a great place to come and live for the summer while you’re adventuring in the mountains or just on a holiday,” said Borrowman. “That wasn’t the intent.”

After receiving complaints from Canmore residents regarding illegal camping along a popular recreational pathway, Town of Canmore administration created a resource group last winter to explore the issue and suggest potential solutions to council. The group’s offerings – which included no intervention or the full removal of the campers –  were presented earlier this month and council approved a third option.

“The motion that was approved by council was to take a more moderate approach,” explained Borrowman. “We’ve put in place parking restrictions from 7 in the morning until 9 in the morning, only two hours, but that will force anybody that is staying through the night, it forces them to pack everything up and drive away. Maybe they’ll come back but that should cut down on – people were creating campsites with all sorts of accoutrements.”

Borrowman says the new rule will be in place by the end of May and RCMP will be visiting the area on a more frequent basis to ensure parking restriction compliance and that vehicles are properly registered.

The Town plans to hire a temporary resource outreach worker to work with the campers to better understand what is driving the need for illegal camping. “We recognize that there are people who are staying there because it’s fun, it’s an adventure,” said Borrowman. “We recognize that there’s people with expensive RVs that are staying there because it’s cheaper than paying $25 a night for the campground down the road but we also know that there are people staying there, perhaps transient, (that) have work in Canmore, perhaps service industry work, and either they’re not paid enough or they simply can’t find a place to live. Canmore’s a very difficult housing market.”

The Town will continue to search for a permanent solution to the issues of affordable housing and illegal camping.

Several current campers say they understand what the Town is attempting to accomplish but remain skeptical that the new rule will address the bigger issue.

“I think it’s going to be negative because a lot of these people are going to be working here in the town and actually doing real work,” said one camper. “If their lives are being disrupted like that, it puts a lot of pressure on people just trying to live.”

He suggests an affordable, no-frill campground would immediately solve the illegal camping problem, which he believes isn’t even a problem.

 “A lot of people are climbers or are just here to see the area. If we didn’t have this opportunity, we wouldn’t be able to be here. They just opened that new hostel but, overall, it’s just incredibly expensive if you want to be out in the mountains and just experience that for a few months. This is kind of the only way to do that if you’re a student.”

Another camper suggests dissuading illegal camping in one location could result in the vans and RVs appearing in new spots throughout the town.

“I feel like a lot of people have a good life here, even if they’re living in their vans, and they’re not going to really want to leave and they’re just going to be relocating to other places in Canmore,” said the woman. “I don’t think this is going to solve the problem.”

Brandon Wenkoff plans to permanently move his RV from the roadway after the rule change comes to fruition. He says he’ll miss the conversations with travellers and the sense of community found in the illegal campground.

“It’s been a really good, positive experience,” said Wenkoff who admits that saving money was a major factor in his decision to camp. “Once the town brought in the bylaw I decided I didn’t want to fight or try and move the RV every day so we’re going to try something else.”

“I don’t regret it for a second.”

Borrowman says the crackdown on illegal camping should not dissuade people from visiting Canmore, no matter their budget. “There’s places where you can camp legally – the Wapiti campground just down the road, $25 a night – or there’s two brand new hostels as it happens. Both opened up this month. You don’t have to pay the $300 a night for a hotel room, there are affordable options.”

With files from CTV’s Bill Macfarlane