September 4, 2008
Law needed to ensure access to Great Lakes beaches
FOR MOST DUFFERIN-AREA residents, a trip "to the beach" is a trip to Wasaga, which bills itself as the world's longest fresh water beach.
Once there, you have to pay at least $5 to park anywhere close to the sand beach, and a lot more if you want to use one of the parking lots in Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. Long gone are the days when you could just drive along the beach and park free wherever you'd like.
However, one thing you've never had to cope with was a fence barring public access to the beach.
The same right of access exists for Sauble Beach near Owen Sound and many other parts of the Lake Huron shoreline. Similarly, there are lots of good public beaches along Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario.
However, that's not the case everywhere on Ontario's Great Lakes shorelines — far from it!
In fact, the owners of some of the most valuable properties in the province have deeds showing their ownership as extending right to the water's edge.
That hasn't always been the case. At one point it was assumed that the Crown's ownership of the land under the lakes extended as far as the high water marks. But that changed with the stroke of a pen in 1951, when Lands and Forests Minister H. R. Scott moved the province's jurisdiction from the high water marks to the low water marks, meaning anything above the water itself was no longer claimed as Crown property.
(As a consequence, public ownership has declined and private ownership risen with the lakes now at record lows and the beaches far wider than they once were!)
The change in rules meant little when it occurred, but the growth of population and accompanying public demand for recreational activities has led to serious clashes between beach-lovers and beach owners.
Nowhere is this more obvious than along the easterly extension of Wasaga Beach, the just-as-beautiful Balm and Rowntree beaches of Simcoe's Tiny Township.
There, it's been quite a summer. Vandalism, assaults, broken bones, torn earlobes, a chainsaw attack, arson, charges of public mischief, hundreds and hundreds of police calls, all in the space of just a few months.
Balm Beach has become the most visible flashpoint in the growing schism between public access and private ownership of the province's cherished, and increasingly crowded, waterfront places, and a sudden, stark notice to the public at large: our best beaches are more likely than not deemed to be private.
Balm Beach stands as an abject lesson in what happens when such grey areas as beach access are left to fester unregulated, hazy and unclear.
There, as at Wasaga, most of the local population have cottages that don't front on the lake, but unlike Wasaga, only one short strip has been set aside as a "public beach," and the real trouble began in 2006, when John Marion, whose lakeside home sits one lot south of the public beach, started building a two-metre-tall wooden fence along his property line down to the water's edge. Parallel to it, a chain-link fence hems in the Marion property, which had been confirmed as extending to the water's edge when the owner made an application under the provincial Boundaries Act in 2005. Beyond it, 30 shoreline cottage owners who say their original deeds erroneously excluded beachfront from their property have acquired the same right and the beach has been quietly decreed private.
On June 29, the Marion fence was attacked with a chainsaw by local cottager Mark Tasikas, who was charged with mischief to property.
On July 22, the fence was set on fire, No arrests have been made. Two days later, 14- year old James Brennan, vacationing with his family from Mississauga, ended up in a physical confrontation in the water beyond the Marions' property. His earrings were torn out, and his hand was broken. John Marion, 63, and his son Greg, 42, were charged with assault causing bodily harm.
The property squabble can be traced to 2001, when Nicholas Leblovic, a Toronto lawyer with a summer home on Balm Beach, made the first application under the Boundaries Act to extend his property line to the water's edge. But the Marions are the only ones to cordon off their property — even though any of the others could do the same, transforming the beach into barricaded corridors.
Thankfully, Kim Craitor, Liberal MPP for Niagara Falls, has introduced a private member's bill, the Great Lakes Shoreline Right of Passage Act, which would guarantee the public's ability to walk all the shorelines of the Great Lakes. It's now awaiting committee review and surely should be approved, either as is or as a government bill with the same purpose.
The MPP was spurred by similar conflicts along the Lake Erie shoreline near Fort Erie, but his bill speaks to the same rift between private property owners and members of the public who believe shoreline access is an inalienable right. In Michigan, the state legislature passed a bill in 2005 much like the one Mr. Craitor has proposed for Ontario.
Rowntree Beach, to the north of Balm, has the same problem, thanks to a court ruling that's at variance with a decision denying a shoreline resort owner near Grand Bend an application to declare his beach private in 1989.
As we see it, this should be a matter for our legislators, not the courts. Provincial law should reflect a clear (overwhelming?) public interest in having all the Great Lakes shoreline accessible to everyone, not just a relative handful of rich property owners.