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What happens when a right of way meets a way of life?

What happens when a right of way meets a way of life?

It is a long-standing principle of Quebec civil law that the owner of property enclosed by that of others may require one of them to provide the necessary right of way to use and exploit her land.[1] This principle strikes a delicate but important balance between the right to access one’s property via the public road, and the right of neighbouring owners to enjoy their property free of trespass and without undue annoyance.

In the vastly popular cottage country of Quebec, this balancing act has in recent years taken on an altogether new dimension: at what point does the right to be relieved from enclosure (or “enclave”) succumb to the collective will to preserve a way of life, one that shuns development and seeks desperately to preserve the tranquility and bucolic state of field and forest?

In a closely watched case originating in the Municipality of Lac-Tremblant-Nord (Rankin v. Gaucher 2019 QCCA 1718), the Quebec Court of Appeal recently weighed in on this very question. The case arose in circumstances that were not necessarily novel, but had received both conflicting and ambiguous interpretation from the Courts in previous decisions. Can an owner who has access to his cottage via the lake nonetheless insist that his neighbour(s) provide a right of way to facilitate road access as well?

The court below readily acknowledged that the Plaintiff, Mr. Gaucher, was able to access his cottage by lake and that Lac Tremblant could be considered a “public road” within the meaning of Article 997 CCQ: “Il est indéniable que le fonds de M. Gaucher dispose d’une issue sur le lac Tremblant qui constitue une voie publique.[2] It was also established that for more than a century, the residents of Lac-Tremblant-Nord routinely accessed their homes or cottages via the lake, a way of life that was entrenched in the municipality’s urban plan and one that was fiercely defended by the town’s administration and residents alike:

[13] (…) Conçue à l’origine comme un site de villégiature en pleine nature[4], la municipalité attira au cours des années un nombre limité de propriétaires qui y firent construire des chalets ou des résidences, principalement estivales, sur les berges du Lac. Une caractéristique de la  MLTN est que son réseau routier est très limité[5] (et l’est plus encore en bordure du Lac où il est pratiquement inexistant). Aussi, de tout temps, la plupart des résidents ont accédé à leur propriété par bateau, en utilisant le Lac comme voie d’accès. (…)

The question therefore was not whether Mr. Gaucher’s property was enclosed per se, but rather whether the lake access was “inadequate, difficult or impassable”, a situation commonly referred to as economic enclosure or “enclave économique”. In carefully drafted reasons, Justice Morissette reviewed the historical evolution of Articles 997 & ff CCQ and summarized just how the concept of “enclave économique” made its way into the civil law of Quebec. Compared to the concept of “enclave juridique” or legal enclosure, “enclave économique” is more of a vague and fuzzy notion, one that requires a subjective analysis of the entire situation of the subject property.

Pursuant to Articles 997 and 1001 CCQ, access to the public road may be considered “inadequate, difficult or impassable” if it prevents the owner from using and exploiting his land. The criteria here is necessity, and not mere convenience or comfort. Bearing this in mind, Justice Morissette noted that the relief Mr. Gaucher was seeking did not reflect so much the actual legal situation of his property, but rather Gaucher’s plan to convert his summer home into a permanent residence. According to Mr. Gaucher, this would require the type of year-round access not otherwise afforded by the lake. Unlike the Court below, Justice Morissette was not persuaded:

[35] (…) En l’espèce, l’état d’enclave revendiqué par l’intimé dépend moins de la réalité de son fonds que de sa décision de changer l’usage qu’il entend en faire : transformer sa résidence secondaire ou de villégiature, qui est partout entourée de résidences de ce type, en résidence principale, pour s’y loger toute l’année. Une terre agricole qui n’est pas encore pleinement exploitée, ce n’est pas la même chose qu’un chalet estival qu’on veut transformer en résidence principale. Peut-être n’y a-t-il pas là une différence d’essence, mais cela constitue à n’en pas douter une différence de degré significative si on garde à l’esprit le fondement de l’enclave économique.

Similarly, Justice Morissette found that Mr. Gaucher’s plea for relief ran contrary to the collective will expressed not only by his unrelenting neighbours, but also by the municipality in which he now chose to reside full-time:

[37] (…) Serait ainsi transformée la destination des lieux, de manière à contrecarrer la politique de développement favorisée par la MLTN dans sa loi constitutive de 1915, suivie depuis dans les faits, et réitérée avec fermeté par ses élus dans sa règlementation de 2006. (…) Le droit d’un propriétaire qui se prétend affecté d’une enclave économique devrait-il lui permettre de changer la destination des biens immobiliers de ses voisins dans la municipalité où il s’est installé? Car, en somme, l’intimé, par sa demande, tente d’allier les attributs de la vie en milieu urbain, comme à Ville de Mont-Tremblant, avec les avantages peu compatibles d’un grand isolement par éloignement dans un cadre naturel, forestier et lacustre à très faible peuplement. (…)

I for one applaud this thoughtful approach, as it resists the urge to “urbanize” the law in circumstances where urbanization is deliberately sought to be avoided by the collective. To suggest that lake access can no longer be considered adequate in the 21st century is to my mind an entirely inadequate approach to interpreting Article 997 CCQ, even in our modern times. In my view, Justice Morissette’s balance of these increasingly competing interests sets just the right tone:

[41]  En somme, comme je le signalais plus haut, l’intimé recherche tous les avantages de la ville en pleine forêt et au bord d’un lac, au détriment de ses voisins qui se satisfont des avantages actuels de ce site sylvestre. Il recherche un accès plus « commode ». Le droit que confère l’article 997 C.c.Qne va pas jusque-là.

It remains to be seen whether that balance will be as long-standing as the principle on which it (now quite decisively) sits.

________________________________________

[1] Article 997 Civil Code of Quebec (« CCQ »)
[2] Gaucher v. Municipalité de Lac-Tremblant-Nord, 2018 QCCS 2520 at para. 28

 

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