Aging wooden planks are stacked in a clearing near a dilapidated bridge that crosses the Fraser River onto Diamond Island, an almost-hidden land mass in the middle of the river near Alexandria, between Quesnel and Williams Lake.
The planks, now greying, with tall grasses pushing up around the stacks, were purchased by landowners Zach Falkenstein and his mother Maggie Falkenstein about five years ago, to re-do the bridge decking that year. But the repairs never happened.
The Falkenstein family has been locked in a battle with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) over the bridge to Diamond Island since 2012, when the Ministry received a complaint. Since then, concrete barricades have been installed to block access to the bridge and island, and the Falkensteins have been prevented from haying the 400 acres of land they own on the island, as well as the 130 acres they have on lease from the government to utilize.
The battle has been a perfect storm of circumstance and bureaucracy, which has led to the local family having to purchase land elsewhere to hay for their cattle ranch, Diamond Island Cattle Company, and has forced Maggie from her retirement home on the island.
Maggie and Gary Falkenstein purchased Diamond Island in 2007 from Jack Lloyd, another local rancher. Moving to the Cariboo from Wisconsin, where they owned a dairy farm, the Falkensteins put all their money into the property, hoping it would fund their retirement.
Gary later passed away, and the couple’s son Zach, along with his wife Robyn and their two children, took over the day-to-day running of the ranch. Zach and Robyn have a home on the mainland part of the property, while Maggie lived in a house on the island.
The bridge in question was originally built by Jack Lloyd, according to both the Falkensteins and the Ministry. It crosses the river from the west bank, accessed by a gravel road that leads down from West Fraser Road.
It has never had railings and the decking has needed to be repaired yearly, and it has washed out a number of times due to high waters. Zach explains this was all part of the yearly maintenance he would perform on the bridge, to make sure it could take their pick-up trucks and the odd hay truck.
From 2007 to 2012, the Falkensteins happily went about their business, driving to and from the island over the bridge to take care of their ranch.
Despite Diamond Island being largely owned by the Falkensteins, the bridge to the island is technically public property.
As the Ministry’s authorizations director Jane Nicol explains, the bridge is not part of the public road system, but the Falkensteins are not able to stop the public from using the bridge. This is because any land below the high water mark on a river or a lake is not, by definition, private land: it’s considered Crown land.
This means the entire perimeter of Diamond Island is Crown land, and therefore accessible to the public.
“So say if you own a cabin on Quesnel Lake, you don’t own the foreshore,” explains Nicol.
As such, any owners of Diamond Island are required to have a licence of occupation for the bridge, “because it starts and ends on Crown land, and it goes over water, which is Crown land,” says Nicol.
Nicol knows this is a rule not everyone knows about.
“There are lots of cases in the Cariboo where people build things and find out later they had to have some kind of authorization to do it.” Such was the case with the Diamond Island bridge, which was built by Lloyd in 1995, according to Ministry records, before the bridge tenure was actually in place. The licence of occupation for the current bridge was issued later, in 2002.
Nicol says records show that there have been several structures to provide access to the island in the past, two of which were unauthorized.
|The bridge from the west side of the Fraser River to Diamond Island in summer 2018. The bridge decking hasn’t been repaired since a complaint came through in 2012. Melanie Law photo|
The Falkensteins purchased their Diamond Island property and applied for the licence to occupy the bridge in 2007; it was granted without any problems.
In 2012, however, the Ministry received a complaint about the bridge being unsafe. Nicol says it was likely someone who was headed over to the island to carry out some work for the Falkensteins, or perhaps BC Hydro workers, as Maggie suspects.
The complaint kicked off a series of events that led to the current stand off.
The Ministry sent an engineer to examine the bridge, and documented the following: the bridge approaches are too steep, and the jump span is resting on an erodible bed of loose river silt. Because of multiple washouts, there was concern they had compromised the structural safety of the joins. The main span doesn’t have guard rails and the decking was severely deteriorated. All the timber components were compromised and in need of replacement. There was no posted load rating on the bridge.
“I usually fix the bridge every year, but the decking was getting bad at that time,” concedes Zach. “All of a sudden they come out and say there’s all these things wrong with the bridge. But the bridge hadn’t changed since we had it – it was the same thing they transferred to us [in 2007],” he says.
Once the Ministry of Forests got involved, they also notified the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI), which owns the road that leads from West Fraser Road down to the bridge. Nicol says it’s standard practice for them to notify other ministries if they are working on something that falls within its jurisdiction.
When MOTI got involved, it brought another facet to the issues facing the Falkensteins.
“They had some concerns about the stability of the soil, so they needed a geotechnical assessment, and the other assessment they were looking for was a hydrological assessment,” says Nicol.
The Falkensteins were told they’d need to foot the bill for both the bridge repairs and MOTI’s required assessments.
So Zach had Scouten Engineering, a firm out of Prince George, draw up a plan for the bridge repairs. The bid came in at $500,000, not including materials. He was told the geotechnical and hydrological studies would cost in the neighbourhood of $150,000.
The Falkensteins couldn’t afford these expenses. They applied for some funding, but what they received was not nearly enough to allow the family to rebuild the bridge and conduct the studies.
“We just wondered why these studies have to be done? … Our engineers say these studies are way above standards of this kind of bridge and what it is used for: personal ranch business,” says Maggie.
Zach and Maggie also questioned, if they are responsible for paying for insurance, upkeep and plowing of the bridge, why would MOTI get involved at all?
Zach says his family hired lawyers, but the process ended up costing them $50,000, and they got nowhere.
The bridge licence expired in 2015, and was not renewed due to the government’s requirements not being met. The Falkensteins were told not to use the bridge, but the land on Diamond Island makes up a significant portion of their business, and so they continued.
And so in May 2017, the Ministry of Forests installed cement barricades, barring vehicles from passing over the bridge. The result has been devastating.
“It’s hindering us so much. It’s a big part of our ranch. There’s 250 acres of hay ground that I can’t access. … In hay alone, we are out probably $175,000 a year, at least.”
Maggie was actually on the island when the barriers went up, and was trapped there. Although they did receive notifications from the Ministry that a barricade would go up, Maggie says they didn’t know it would be cement blocks.
“Maybe a gate so we could still get through. I guess I just never thought they would go that far,” says Maggie.
When asked if the crew went over to the house to knock on the door the day the barricades were installed, Nicol says she has no record of that happening.
Despite the inability to drive to the island, Maggie continued to live there in the summer of 2017, but eventually left for health reasons, and now lives with Zach and his family on the mainland. She misses her island home.
“I want to go back over there to live. It’s my hope. My husband’s ashes are spread there. This is supposed to be my forever home.”
The Falkenstein family is understandably frustrated with the situation. From 2007 to 2012, they maintained the bridge to a standard that worked for their farm trucks, and never heard a peep from the government.
But as Nicol explains, the area her division covers is vast, and she doesn’t have the staff to be out in the field inspecting tenures at all times. Despite the property, and the bridge licence, having changed hands in 2007, she maintains it was not the government’s responsibility to ensure the new owners were aware of all the ins and outs of the tenure.
Now that the bridge exists, it is up to the tenure holder to keep up repairs to an engineered standard, says Nicol.
“We didn’t have an engineer for the government inspect it until we had a report that it was unsafe, which was in 2012.
“We have hundreds of tenures that exist perfectly fine and every now and again, we’ll get a complaint and send someone out to look at it. We don’t have enough resources to be inspecting and patrolling all over the place,” says Nicol.
Nicol says the file has no record of regular engineering inspections being done on the bridge; however, the Falkensteins dispute that.
“We did have an engineer look at it in 2007 and it was said to be good,” says Maggie via email. Also according to the Falkensteins, their engineer found the bridge to be in good repair for its uses during a 2012 inspection, which contradicts the government’s files.
Nicol also explains that in the documents for the privately owned land on the island, the Crown grant states there is “no obligation whatsoever to provide access to the land.” The catch is that once a bridge was built, it became property of the government, due to its location on Crown land: the perimeter of the island.
The tenure for the leased acres also states the land is “water access only,” says Nicol. “It didn’t come with a bridge.”
“They should have understood it was not part of the sale of the island, but I don’t know what transpired between Jack Lloyd and them … I don’t know what the Falkensteins understood from Jack,” says Nicol. “They did do the paperwork to transfer the tenure into their name, and we have that on file.”
|Around $100,000 worth of planking bought by the Falkensteins to repair the bridge deck in 2012. The materials have been stacked on the riverside since a complaint about the bridge was sent to the provincial government. Melanie Law photo|
Island of uncertainty
A home, a business, family memories: they all sit in the middle of the Fraser River, between Quesnel and Williams Lake.
The Falkensteins have expensive farm equipment rusting away on the island, which they are unable to drive across the bridge, due to its current condition and the cement barricades. Many of Maggie’s possessions are still in her home.
One hundred thousand dollars’ worth of wood and beams for Zach’s planned bridge repairs rot away on the riverbank. The Falkensteins are in limbo.
Nicol, at the Ministry, isn’t unsympathetic to their cause.
“It’s a difficult file, for sure,” she says. “It’s not a happy thing on either side. We’ve been really trying to make sure this is a safe structure. We ultimately don’t want it to fall into the river.”
Nicol says that even if the Falkensteins wanted to sell – something Maggie and Zach have talked about – the government would not be able to remove the barriers to allow them to bring their possessions over. “It’s not safe to use without repair if they need to get their stuff off, which is absolutely a conundrum. … At this point they would have to figure out how to get their stuff across the back channel of the river.”
Even if the Falkensteins chose to try to purchase the lease land, in order to own the entire island – which may be possible, says Nicol – the bridge issue would remain, since the bridge rests on, and traverses, Crown land, no matter who owns the acreage.
Nicol says the only resolution is for the Falkensteins to rebuild or repair the bridge.
“I’m not sure if I see a resolution in sight. I’m an optimist, so I would like to see it happen. And we have given extensions, and worked with the client a lot.
“We do actually want this to be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. We understand the hardship of not having a bridge.”
Diamond in the rough
The Falkensteins seem stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Zach says he does have a new management plan made up to apply for the bridge licence once again, as well as a new, more affordable, engineer’s plan to repair the bridge, which has now been left without its yearly upgrades for six years. But the cost of MOTI’s assessments remain.
“This was suppose to be where Gary and I were going to spend the rest of our days. It became my security for the future. As any rancher will tell you, we don’t have any security except our land. As it stands, I can’t even sell the island for my retirement. I have no cash reserves, so not only do I lose my home, but my ability to provide for myself,” says Maggie.
“To me, it seems as though the government says, it’s their bridge, their access to it, but we have to carry all maintenance and liability. That’s like a landlord telling a renter he has to pay all structural upkeep and insurance on the place he’s renting.”
While Ministry employees like Nicol are sympathetic, the government line remains.
“As a representative of the Crown, I don’t have an obligation to provide them access. Would I like them to have access? Yes. I would like them to have a safe bridge.”