Water, Water Everywhere, But Who Has Access To Our Great Lakes Shores?

By Doug Draper

Who owns the shorelines along our Great Lakes?

One of the fenced-off beaches along Lake Erie in Fort Erie, Ontario. Photo courtesy of Stephen Passero, Ontario Shorewalk Association.

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.”

Another fenced-off stretch of beach in Fort Erie, Ontario.

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 http://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.”

(Click on www.niagaraatlarge.com and Niagara At Large for more news and commentary on matters of interest and concern to our greater Niagara region.)

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7 responses to “Water, Water Everywhere, But Who Has Access To Our Great Lakes Shores?

  1. I wonder if this Act would stop the Whirlpool Jetboat from locking the public out of the only Publicly owned dock in Niagara-on-the-Lake,-the Melville Street dock where over 85,000 tourists pay to have access to the river each summer, teeming through a quiet neighborhood to take a thrill ride, but the public cannot access the shoreline here on their own Town dock.
    And what about the shore at Queenston, where the same jet boats carry over 15,000 for a thrill ride , but lock the public out.

    Gracia Janes, President Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy

  2. We should all support Kim’s bill. I live on Lakeshore Rd in Port Colborne. We front Gravelly Bay. Homes are not permitted on the beach to the east of Lakeshore. About 25 years ago a walkway with a railing was constructed along the road. People of all ages come from all over to walk with their pets, kids, wheelchairs, winter and summer. It is a joy to watch them and was the best investment the city has made. Public access to lakefront should be mandated (with proper regulations.)

  3. Mr. Craitor has a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his commitment. He should support the proposal to establish a park on the Parks Canada property on Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

    This site, closed to the public for over 100 years, is being eyed for a high risk, controversial music festival. In the past, there have been proposals for everything from marinas to condos to golf courses.

    Mr. Craitor can help preserve this natural beauty, and open up a large stretch of shoreline to the public.

  4. Linda McKellar

    I totally support Mr. Craitor in this. It’s about time!!!!

  5. William Hogg MD

    Kim Craitor is right on waterfront access. Please support his private member’s bill. But, even walking along a shoreline carries with it responsibilities. One is not to litter, another is to be unobtrusive. A big, unwieldy list of rules is possible. The fact is that, over time, people tend to take things for granted and do not respect what’s not obviously theirs. So a few reasonable rules are in order and a constructive and ideal means of enforcement is desirable. Perhaps summer-job teenagers, patrolling the shores, as were hired by owners when I was young? I hope Mr. Craitor has included a ‘rule and palatable enforcement’ aspect in his timely bill. Such might be crucial to its being passed. I’m sure the property owners, who reflexively oppose public access, would be more inclined to approve of it then.

  6. Debbie Graham

    My family has owned property in Wasaga Beach, Ontario formerly known as Brocks Beach, for over 60 years. When I was a child everyone had public access to the beach. We could stroll along the beach, set up our chairs or blankets and sit on the beach, not only at the foot of the roadways. At the foot of 71st St. N in Wasaga Beach the town had a booth where people used to pay money to drive along the beach towards the Main Beach known today as Beach 1. It has only been in recent years that the homeowners along the beach front have been posting “Private Beach” signs, putting up rock barriers, and structures along the beach. When these properties are listed for sale, the realtors put up a sign “Beach Front”, not “Private Beach”, which I think would be a selling feature. There are definate discrepancies in the laws about these properties. I believe the beach to the high water mark is public beach. Everyone should have access.

    • Karen Punchard

      Hello Debbie,
      Just came across this posting. My family has owned property on Brocks Beach since the 1920s, but on one of the side or access roads. I, like you, remember having full access to the beach. Almost 100 years later, we are only permitted to use the public access at the end of Sylvan Avenue. I am writing a book on the history of Brocks Beach. Since you mentioned that your family has owned property for over 60 years I thought I would contact you to see if you would like to share any memories, even if it is just to let me know where in Brocks Beach your family spent their summer weekends.

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