Where's the waterfront plan?

Niagara Falls Review . May 2010

The controversy about building condominiums on prime lakefront property in Fort Erie is a symptom of a much larger illness.

Namely, some say, the lack of an overall policy on how much public waterfront access there should be.

Some, like former Fort Erie mayor Wayne Redekop, believe being able to enjoy a walk on the beach or a swim in the lake is a birth right.

During his tenure in office from 1997-2006, Fort Erie adopted a strategic plan that had as one of its cornerstones the acquisition of waterfront property.
In the four years since, that goal seems to have gone by the wayside, says Redekop, who has joined the chorus of people opposing the town's plan to join with a private developer to build a 12-storey condo tower at Bay Beach.

"My belief has always been that the waterfront is part of the birthright of the people that live in communities where they're on water," says Redekop.

More than 100 years ago, local waterfront was sold to Americans by farmers who realized beaches were of no use to their crops or livestock, says Redekop.

But when he was elected mayor, Redekop pushed for an initiative that would see the town recapture a significant portion of waterfront across the community.

"I grew up at a time when there was a lot of polarization between Lake Erie property owners and individuals who wanted to march along the beach or gain access to the beach," he says.

"There was a time when there were fences that people would run right out to the water to prevent individuals from walking along the beach.

"There's been a lot of change in that attitude over the years.

"There's a lot more, I think, desire for people to be co-operative and collaborative.

You get a lot of property owners on the lake who don't care if people want to walk on the beach. They don't want people causing mischief."

The town purchased Bay Beach, a 4.5-acre property on Erie Road with some 400 feet of sandy Lake Erie shoreline, from the Rebstock family in 2001 for around $2 million.

At the outset, the idea was to buy the whole property to acquire the public beach, then sell off inland portions to generate money to purchase more waterfront as opportunities arose.

The issue featured prominently in the 2003 municipal election.

It came to a head in 2005, when council voted to keep all, but a tiny portion of the property and rejected, in a 4-3 vote, leasing part of the site for a hotel or condo complex. Redekop was the deciding vote.

But after a new council with a new mayor was sworn in 2006, the issue resurfaced. Council decided to solicit proposals for a pubic-private redevelopment of the land. The process led to the selection of The Molinaro Group, a company that helped developed Burlington's downtown waterfront district.

Along with building a 12-storey condo complex, the Molinaro plan also calls for a municipal, all-season pavilion, public washrooms, change rooms and a restaurant with a view of the water.

Proponents of a public-private sector partnership claim doing so would get a return on the town's investment and stimulate growth and business in the area. The beach itself would not be for sale, only the adjacent parcels of the property.

But critics continue to oppose it. Citizens groups were formed. Petitions opposed the plan and hundreds of people attended council meetings whenever the Bay Beach issue was discussed.

Mayor Doug Martin says the town hasn't abandoned the goal of having good public waterfront access. Instead, he says the deal with the Molinaro Group is all about making the best use of the land and keeping access affordable.

"This will be the catalyst, I think, for redevelopment within the Crystal Beach area," says Martin.

"It also allows the town to have all of the amenities that we want at the beach provided through the developer."

Martin says "unencumbered access" to the beach will remain under the proposal.

"The beach lands will always remain in the ownership of the Town of Fort Erie. That's never been a question."

Martin admits the condo development is not consistent with the lifestyle or current landscape in Crystal Beach.

"But if you look at the provincial policy statements, this is exactly what they're asking for -- to grow up instead of out, to reduce our footprint. They want us to use more multi-use residential (development) rather than expanding the footprint with larger lots.

"Is it different than what is there? Yes. Is it a change that is going to be happening in the future? Absolutely. And is this the beginning of something like this maybe again at the beach? Probably."

What to do with Bay Beach isn't solely a Fort Erie issue. It's an issue that impacts everyone in Niagara, says Regional Coun. Norm Puttick, who believes the Region should have a public waterfront policy.

"We should, as a Region, oppose that development and buy that area up," says Puttick, who represents Niagara Falls.

"They paid around $2 million for it in Fort Erie. Surely to God the Region can buy that up.

"There should be a policy that ... prior to a development going in on lake front property, the Region should have first right of refusal to buy it -- in this case from the municipality. And if Norm Puttick owns 2,000 feet of lake front, it should be the same thing -- the Region should have first right of refusal."

While the town claims it has responded to public input about the Molinaro proposal, opponents say it has done so selectively and has not addressed some concerns, including permitting high-rise development on waterfront property and environmental impacts.

Despite the heavy opposition, a rezoning application was narrowly approved by council earlier this year, essentially endorsing the plan.

Town hall received more than 10 appeals to the decision. They were forwarded to the Ontario Municipal Board. It has yet to schedule a hearing.

Crystal Beach summer resident Marcia Carlyn says fellow opponents to the Molinaro proposal are frustrated with how the issue has been dealt with by council.

Carlyn, whose family has owned a cottage in Crystal Beach for decades, says not only has council "ignored the decisions" of the previous council, they have also dismissed long-standing plans and studies dealing with Bay Beach.

"Transactions of this magnitude should be as transparent as possible," she says.

"The town council's lack of accountability regarding the Bay Beach project and questionable public-private partnership has led to strong public criticism and has diminished our confidence in local government."

Instead of seeking private assistance, Carlyn suggests the town apply for government funding to help create a year-round use of the Bay Beach property, such as developing the lakefront Lobster House as a community centre for cultural events and meetings, and constructing a boardwalk and nature centre.

Redekop says when he decided against running for re-election as mayor in 2006, and when the election results changed the makeup of council, he realized the agenda at town hall could change.

He says while the 12-storey condo complex is "completely out of character" for Crystal Beach, the biggest problem he sees with the proposal is it "goes against the will" of the majority of people in the area.

"I disagree with (the proposal) for a number of reasons, but the first reason ... is it does not take into account the views and the aspirations of the people who have spent a lot of time over the last 15 years trying to improve Crystal Beach," he says.

"It's basically saying to those people, 'We've heard you, and we just don't agree with you -- we want to do this.'

"Well, in the long term how does that play out? How do you alienate the people who have actively worked to improve your community?"

Redekop says that doesn't mean he's against public-private partnerships.

"I spent nine years (as mayor) trying to develop partnerships because I do believe you can accomplish more with partnerships than trying to do things alone.

"But I don't think you can build a community if you don't have the people who live in the community wanting to be supportive and wanting to work with you. And they won't work with you and be supportive of you unless you legitimately listen to them."

Martin says the town has tried to redevelop the area since the Crystal Beach Amusement Park closed in 1989.

"There hasn't been a lot of success," says Martin. "This is different than what was identified, yes, but I think it's consistent with what the new reality is. I see this as an opportunity for growth and ... the rebirth of Crystal Beach."


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Time line

* October 2001: Town purchases Bay Beach property from the Rebstock family for $2.05 million. Previously, it was a private resort;

* Summer 2002: Large numbers of people, many from outside Fort Erie, begin coming to the beach -- numbers that hadn't been seen since the closing of the Crystal Beach Amusement Park in 1989;

* July 2003: Group forms to oppose a plan to sell off portions of the 4.5-acre property;

* 2003-2005: Citizens and groups come forward with different plans to revitalize the beach, while retaining public ownership;

* December 2005: Council votes 4-3 to keep Bay Beach lands, except for a small parcel, in public hands;

* Summer 2008: Town staff suggest a public-private partnership to develop Bay Beach properties;

* March 2009: The town enters into an agreement with the Molinaro Group, which proposes a 12-storey condominium complex and amenities;

* March 2010: Council approves a rezoning application endorsing the plan.