April 15, 2010
Niagara At Large
Water, Water Everywhere, But Who
Has Access To Our Great Lakes Shores?

By Doug Draper


Who owns the shorelines along our Great Lakes?

Should members of the public have access to them for, if nothing else, a peaceful stroll along a beach? Or are they the private domain of the privileged few who own homes, cottages and businesses along the shoreline side of the road?

Many residents in our Niagara, Ontario region have had the following  experience in the summer.

They have parked their car along one of the few remaining places left in the region where there is some open access to a beach along Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. They begin walking along the shore and before they know it, there is a fence or a rope line right out to the water, with signs reading; ‘Private Property’, ‘Keep Out’, No Trespassing’ or something slightly more delicate like; ‘No Loitering’.

And so much for enjoying our lakeshores!

Now, Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor is trying once again to grant the residents and visitors to our Niagara, Ontario region at least some access to our Great Lakes shores with the reintroduction of the ‘Great Lakes Shoreline Rights of Passage Act, a private members’ bill he has tabled this April in the Ontario legislature.

“Essentially the bill will allow the public to enjoy the various beaches on the Great Lakes of our beautiful province,” says Craitor, who has tabled this bill at least once before over the past five or six years. “This is similar to rights enjoyed by the citizens in various states that front along the Great Lakes in the United States.”

Indeed, it would also allow residents and visitors to our Niagara region some of the same shoreline rights as those one may enjoy along the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a second home of mine, where the beaches around the waterline are public domain.

Some shoreline owners try to work there way around that by blocking access to roads and parking areas near some of the beaches to all but area residents, but that isn’t going over very well with other residents on the Cape, including people who make their living in the tourist industry.
In a special court test more than a decade ago around public access to Cape area beaches – this one on the nearby island of Martha’s Vineyard – members of the public won a case against the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the widow of U.S. President John F. Kennedy), who had her beachfront property fenced off to the public at the time. The courts ruled she had to take the barrier down.

Ironically, it was the late President Kennedy who signed a milestone piece of legislation that created a ‘National Seashore’ on Cape Cod that leaves many miles of outer beachfront in the public domain.
Today, you can walk along the beaches of Hyannis on the Cape, right in front of the famous Kennedy compound, and I did it last November while visiting some of our friends there for American Thanksgiving, and no one can stop you.

Back here in Niagara, we’ve watched mile after mile of open beachfront fall into private hands over the past 40 or 50 years, and there is hardly a place left for people to enjoy a walk along Great Lakes that should be a public legacy – not private recreational ponds for those rich and privileged enough to pay for lakefront property.

That, once again, is where Craitor’s private member’s bill comes in and that is why Stephen Passero, a Fort Erie resident and president of the Ontario Shorewalk Association, supports it.

“Shorewalk applauds the efforts of MPP Craitor to continually ensure that Right of Passage legislation remains a priority of his,” Passero said in a statement to Niagara At Large.

“We anxiously await second reading of Bill 32 and have been actively pursuing partnerships and alliances with like minded organizations who also recognize the importance of what the legislation accomplishes – a fair approach to a long standing issue; balancing the publics ever increasing desire to access and stroll the shoreline, with the interests and protection of waterfront property owners.  

“Our web site (visit it at www.shorewalk.ca/articles.html) fields e-mails daily from supporters of the Right of Passage act, and encouragement from residents province wide who believe as we do that there should be no fences or other impediments along the Great Lakes shores.”

Craitors’ bill would, according to a media release he circulated on it this April 13, “prohibits adjacent land owners from claiming and barricading beaches by putting fences way out into the water and allowing them to assert the beachfront as private and exclusive property.

Craitor maintains these beaches by tradition and in concert with British common law are properly the preserve of the public and the public’s right to access these beaches needs to be reaffirmed through his legislation.

Craitor’s right of passage bill limits the right of passage along the shoreline to people on foot and other non-motorized means (carriages & wheelchairs) and protects adjacent landowners from the noise of motorcycles and other off-road motorized vehicles.

The bill expressly does not allow the public to access to beaches through private property so a public right away must exist in order for the public to enjoy a beach.

In Fort Erie for example many of the beaches have unused municipal road right of ways that will allow the public access to its beaches. The problem arises that a few landowners have fenced off the road right of ways out into the lake.

The bill provides a fine of up to $2000 if the public is improperly blocked from enjoying access to Ontario’s beaches along the Great Lakes.

If you believe public access to our Great Lakes beaches and you feel this bill makes sense, please contact your provincial member of parliament (and if you don’t know who they are and how to contact them, call your local municipal town or city hall folks) and let them know you want them to support Craitor’s bill.”