Ontario lawmaker wants to legalize public beachcombing

A bill proposed in Ontario, Canada may let the general public walk along the Great Lakes shoreline instead of just the people who own lakefront property.

Right now they can’t.

Shoreline property owners in Ontario have privileges right down to the lakes.

“Cottage owners take advantage of that,” said Marcia Valiante, a law professor at University of Windsor, “They put up barriers in the water.”

The existing laws are unclear, she said. This bill tries to clarify the situation.

The proposed Great Lakes Right of Passage Act would allow the public to walk between the shoreline and the high water mark of a Great Lake. It was proposed by Kim Craitor, a member of the provincial parliament.

“Property owners sell their property on the shorelines at a higher cost than the value of land since they assume they own a part of the lake,” Craitor said.

Similar debates about public access to the shoreline prevail in the U.S.

Each state owns a share of the lakes in public trust, said James Olson, a Michigan attorney specializing in environmental law.

“Drinking water, swimming and boating are protected for citizens,” said Olson.

“When you look at public access, the bottomlands cannot be handed over to private owners. The landowner cannot exclude people from walking on the shoreline.”

But walking on the shoreline of the Great Lakes is not allowed for the public in Canadian provinces and some Great Lakes states, Olson said.

Sand beach with a private beach sign & fence which is put up every summer to keep everybody off in Ontario. Image via Ontario Shore-walk Association Files
Landowners assume the low-lying land by the lake to be their property.

In Michigan and Wisconsin the public may walk along the shoreline of the Great Lakes between the water and the high water mark on land. In Illinois and Indiana people need to have their feet in the water to walk around a lake’s edges. In Pennsylvania and Minnesota the low water mark is the dividing line between public and private property. Ohio courts are currently deliberating the issue where a decision is expected within the next few months, said Chris Shafer, a professor at Cooley Law School in Michigan.

Shafer advised the Michigan Supreme Court through an amicus brief during the Glass vs. Glock beach access case in 2005 in Michigan. An amicus brief is one where someone who is not a party to a case volunteers information to assist a court in deciding a matter before it.

The court ruled in favor of the public being allowed to walk on the shoreline of Lake Huron up to the high water mark. It defined that mark as the visible boundary line on land formed due to ‘erosion, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, or other easily recognized characteristic’. So the public in Michigan can now walk along this shoreline freely.

Craitor is trying to achieve the goal of free public access to the Great Lakes shoreline through legislation instead of through courts, said Valiante.

If passed, the bill will outlaw the frequent practice of putting up fences in the water to keep the public out, she said. The bill addresses right of passage by foot. People will be allowed to walk on the shoreline, but not stop or carry out any other beach activities there.

“I came up with the concept of the Right of Passage bill and introduced it into parliament and once the word was spread across Ontario, other communities were in support of the bill because they were facing the same issues in their communities,” Craitor said.

Laws allowing people to walk along the shoreline don’t exist around the Great Lakes in Canada, said Craitor.

The provincial election coming up in October makes it harder to pass the bill, said Craitor.

But he wants the issue on the floor now to create awareness and support for it. The issue will definitely be picked up after the election and since it has already been introduced it will have more support then, Craitor said.

It has important, practical consequences for tourist spots such as those on the shore of Lake Erie, he said. “For example, Fort Erie has a historical lighthouse where you actually need to walk on the shoreline to get to it.”

He hopes other similar laws will be set up around the country for other lakes.