Niagara Falls MPP Continues Fight For Public’s ‘Right Of Passage’ On Ontario’s Lakeshores

A Commentary by Doug Draper

Let me begin with a question. Who owns the Great Lakes?

Public is fenced off from many stretches of beach behind private homes along Lake Erie in Niagara, Ontario. File photo courtesy of Ontario Shorewalk Association.

You might respond by saying that the answer to that one is simple. We all do. Or if you want think about these waterbodies the way our Native North Americans friends might, you may say we don’t own them. We are just borrowing them from our children.

Well, on the Ontario side of the Great Lakes at least, and possibly in a number of U.S. states around the lakes, you would be wrong on both counts because these waterbodies – as in any access to them along most of their beaches –  are apparently the monopoly of people who own property along them.

In Ontario, says the Niagara Falls riding’s member of provincial parliament Kim Craitor, there are shoreline property owners who go so far as to place fences and other barricades, often decorated with no trespassing or loitering signs, right down into the lake waters so no one can walk along the beach behind them. And Craitor is still fighting to put an end to that.

For the third time in just about as many years, Craitor, a member of Ontario’s governing Liberal Party, has tabled a private members bill that would at least give the public some “right of passage” along the beaches up to the high waterline. The last two bills died in the legislature and it may be even tougher for this one which Craitor tabled this past spring and is waiting for MPPs for all three parties when they return to Queen’s Park this fall.

This time, said Craitor in a recent interview, the bill is facing even more opposition from shoreline property owners who fear that any right of passage along their stretch of beach opens up the possibility for people throwing noisy parties and cluttering up the beach with garbage. There are also property owners who simply don’t want anyone but them and their guests on the piece of beach behind their homes at all, regardless of how well behaved the people walking along the shore may be.

Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor continues battle for public access to lakeshores.

Yet there are citizens out there, including members of the Fort Erie-based Ontario Shorewalk Association, who have been fighting for some shoreline access for years and are calling Craitor’s latest bill – called the Great Lakes Shoreline Right of Passage Act, 2012 or Bill 103 – the “best hope” on their website. There are also ordinary citizens like Jay Howe who sent Niagara At Large the following note for posting this July.

“Imagine my disgust today when I took my two-year-old daughter to Crescent Beach in Fort Erie,” said Howe in his note. “The narrow strip between two chain link fences was busy so we dared stray about 20 feet west.  As far as the eye could see was open beach.  In short order, I was approached by a polite security guard and told that I would have to move back to the enclosure as everything else was privately owned.  I asked how a person could own shoreline and was told that they do and are taxpayers.  As I packed up our stuff to rejoin the “common folk” (other Canadian citizens and Fort Erie residents), I said that I am also a taxpayer … year round.”

No doubt there are others out there who would ask what the problem is here. If people want some water and sand, just go to a public beach.

Well, people can do that, but the sad fact of the matter, and everyone up to and including most of our politicians in Niagara, also know that for a region that is bordered north and south by Lakes Ontario and Erie, very little of the shoreline along those lakes is fully open to the public. Most of the shoreline area was sold off to private owners a long time ago.

A few years back, at least 12 acres of the old Easter Seals campgrounds along Lake Erie in Wainfleet may have been secured for the public but private interests planning to build shoreline condominiums beat the regional government on that deal. The regional government got back a little bit of shoreline in that same municipality few years ago and  as much as that was celebrated, it was only a 400-foot strip of beach.

Then we have condomium plans encroaching or encircling popular beaches like Bay Beach in Fort Erie and Lakeshore Beach in Port Dalhousie. One can hardly blame many who opposed these condos for wondering what they may mean for future access to these beaches. There is no guarantee the day won’t come when the people who purchase these high-priced condos go to te respective municipalities complaining about all of the noise, etc. on those beaches. In that case, there are a few strategies that have been employed in other regions to restrict or discourage use of the beaches. You can jack up parking fees so high that many may feel a few hours at the beach is not worth the price of admission, or the owners of the condos could lease or buy up the access roads so that as much as the public beach may still be there, just try getting to it without lugging your beach chairs, etc. on foot for half a mile or more.

If and when wealthy condo owners look up the public beach below them as their backyard, there are all kind of measures that can be taking to cut back on the amount of ‘riff raff’ that uses it.

Then there are some of the public beaches we have in the region that can become so swamped with rotting mats of algae during the summer that people can’t use them, and the province won’t allow the municipalities that own those beaches to do anything to make them usable.

A year ago this summer, one of the public beaches in Fort Erie was so smothered over with stinking algae that the town sought permission from the province to rake the offensive stuff off the sands. The province’s Ministry of Natural Resources said no because the cleanup might do harm to a possible beach inhabitant called the Fowler’s Toad, which is listed as a “species at risk” in Ontario.

This button asks for protection of Fowler’s toad on Bay Beach in Fort Erie, Ontario where a high-rise condominium is planned.

Yet just a few hundred metres away, private shoreline owners got no grief from the ministry for raking the algae off stretches of beach behind their home because those beaches because they are considered part of their property. Apparently (and I say this sarcastically) the Ministry of Natural Resources does not place as much value on the welfare of these toads on beaches deemed to be private so whatever toads were there could be discarded in the dumpsters with the offensive mats so that these folks could enjoy their stretch of fenced-off shoreline while one of the few public beaches in the area remained too polluted to use.

So perhaps the moral to that story is that if you are a shoreline property owner and you find a Fowler’s toad on the beach behind you, you can throw it in a pot of bowling water if you want. The Ministry of Natural Resources won’t care. But don’t even think about cleaning up a public beach where one of these toads may reside.

If that sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, then why not go the whole distance with the white rabbit and mad hatter. Why not go so far as to say that if shoreline property owners view everything to the back to them down past the high waterline and the lakes themselves as their private swimming pools, then let them pay for cleaning them up. There are estimates on the books in Canada and the U.S. that it could cost billions of dollars for a new round of measures to reduce pollution in the lakes. Well, send the bill to these people. Why should people who have little or no access to the lakes pay for their upkeep?

I know I am being rhetorical here and something akin to charging shoreline owners a user fee for looking after the lakes is not going to happen 

Would it not make far more sense, therefore, to take Craitor’s ‘Right of Passage’ bill which, after all, only asks for public access to the shores down around the waterline a little more seriously. What is wrong with members of all three provincial parties – Liberals, Conservatives and NDP – that there have not been enough of them to pass this legislation in the past, and there may not be enough to pass it this time?

Why aren’t enough of Ontario’s MPPs willing to stand up for the public and say that the Great Lakes are a major feature of our natural heritage that should be made as accessible as possible to everyone, and not just to a few with the means to own property along the shores.

You can learn more about this issue by visiting the website for the Fort Erie-based citizens group Ontario Shorewalk Association. The site includes a copy of Craitor’s bill and a place where you can click on for contact information for your MPP for the purposes of urging them to support the bill. If you believe in what Craitor and citizen groups like the Ontario Shorewalk Association are fighting for, you should let your MPP know as soon as possible. The link for the website is http://shorewalk.ca/index.html .

(Niagara At Large invites you to share your views on this post in the comment area below, remembering that NAL only posts comments by individuals who are willing to share their first and last names.)

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19 responses to “Niagara Falls MPP Continues Fight For Public’s ‘Right Of Passage’ On Ontario’s Lakeshores

  1. Linda McKellar

    Two rules, one for the rich and one for us peasants re cleaning beaches. Can specific areas not be set aside for the poor toads? Of course those would be the public areas.
    Who is at fault for all the private ownership? Town officials years ago in the early 20th century who sold out to cottagers to make a few bucks at the expense of everyone else. The same is STILL happening. Our cowardly councillors are giving in to the cash cows that benefit noboby but themselvers and developers. And so it will continue until we are totally disfranchised of our access our own lakes.
    Furthermore, how can we be prohibited from walking below the high water line. Do these creeps own the water too? Just how far out into the lake do they think they own? I’m sure some septegenarians walking the shoreline will go berserk and have some wild orgy on the beach…NOT! The cottagers send out their dogs too, not just security guards.

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  2. Linda McKellar

    PS, why would the MPP’s actually consider doing something that benefits the public in general. I’m sure they all have nice cottages somewhere.

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  3. The first 66 feet chain reserve on federal lakes belong to the government of Canada, by the ruling of the Treaty of Ghent 1814 and is still in force, on the US side of the Great lakes this ruling has been subject to review and every time has ruled this chain reserve is still in force. That makes those fences down to the shore line are illegal The treaty only covers navigible waterways in the Great Lakes system.so from the waters edge up shore is Federal land. also only coast guard ships not war ships are allowed to fire live ammunition.anywhere on the Great Lakes The US navy was denied permission recently to hold live fire exercises on the Lakes The rules regarding inland Provincial lakes are different than the Federal Rules and in some cases allow ownership to the waters edge.

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  4. Heather McArdle

    Yet again Kim has shown he speaks for the regular person and uses common sense. Why doesn’t he run for premier. I would back him. I’m sick of the rich and the corprorate elite running our province as if it was for their benefit only. The ministry of natural resources needs to Protect the rights of people first; aren’t we the provinces most important resource? Keep up the good work Kim.

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  5. Greg Middleton

    How is it that the Liberal party just doesn’t seem to understand property rights and are bent on executing property rights abuses?
    Take this issue for arguments sake. People have LEGALLY purchased property that is lakefront or owned it for years. They own it. It doesn’t matter whether if it is in the bush, on a river or on the lake. It is their land and no one else’s. They own it. In addition to that they pay extraordinary property taxes based on the fact that it is lakefront.

    Now here come the other people that don’t own it or care for it yet they want to use it. Let me ask you this. How would you like me to set up in your backyard?

    If the region or municipality wants lakefront access then they should buy some, maintain it and make it available to the public. They should preserve whatever is not developed. They should leave the lawful owners of property alone.

    What’s the Liberals approach? Just take their land and make it available to the public.

    Recall the GreenBelt. The largest land expropriation that has taken place in the history of Canada with no compensation to the landowner. I can not use MY land for purposes that I see fit because someone in Toronto thinks this is a good idea.

    Our rights under this pseudo-communist liberal government are continually under attack and this is another example of their tactics on these types of issues. What’s next you have to wonder?

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    • Linda McKellar

      Greg, with all due respect, I wouldn’t presume to have a party, BBQ or campfire on “your” beach. It is your property and is expensive and highly taxed. The lake is not. Why can I not WALK along the water’s edge or at least IN the water at the edge of your property if I do not trespass? The friendship trail passes along the edge of people’s property but those using it don’t do any harm. Why not the same with the lakeshore? We’re not all vandals. I have been walking IN the water 10 feet from the shore and had people swear at me and send out German Shepherds. To me that’s the equivalent of me sending my dog’s out after someone walking on the public street in front of my home. I would respect your property but it would be nice to be allowed to at least walk in the water along the edge of it. I would NEVER disrespect your property rights. That would be ignorant and rude of me.

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      • Michael Mitchell

        I don’t doubt that you are respectful Linda, but you are asking more from me than I would ever ask of you. I do not wish to walk on your backyard and would never do so. I respect your right to privacy. My title and deed are absolutely unequivocally clear.

        I have two wonderful Dobermans – three drunk teens on my beach last Friday at midnight. They scared my wife and woke my infant. Released the hounds and problem solved VERY quickly. No need to waste the police’s time. The fact is that they were trespassing and offensive.

        Kim Craitors doomed legislation is fundamentally flawed. It is highly discriminatory the Muskokas and Kawarthas are not affected – why should we be? We have a right to privacy, and the province deeded away the right to the beach 150 years ago.

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  6. Shorewalk dropped the ball in the Bay Beach Issue when its board decided to remain neutral. Shorewalk can grandstand all it wants claiming support for the struggle to save a road allowance in Wainfleet, but it never stepped up to the plate in Bay Beach. The MNR just gave the Bay Beach condo developer the go-ahead to:

    a) Damage and destroy the habitat of Fowler’s Toad on the Site as necessary to construct a condominium and associated Community Benefits on behalf of the Town of Fort Erie;
    b) harm, harass, kill, possess, collect and transport Fowler’s Toad as is necessary to:
    i. relocate them from the areas identified in red in Appendix A;

    ii. incidentally kill, harm or harass individuals that were not relocated prior to beginning construction of the condominium and Community Benefits;
    iii. fulfill the conditions of this permit, including monitoring and maintenance
    of the Toad Enhancement Area.

    The taxpayers of the Town of Fort Erie will be paying for the maintenance of the Toad Habitat which will also take up a sizable portion of the sand beach and the upland area that was to be “public space.” Council voted to accept the provisions of the MNR permit awarded to the condo developer despite well-documented opposition.

    After all is said and done, the once public waterfront property will be entirely covered by the condominium and the toad habitat except for a narrow public access laneway to the beach. Yay! And an outhouse in the sand. (Excuse me. That is no way to speak of the amenities we will get in exchange for our prime/last piece of public waterfront property.)

    And we all look forward to at least two years of construction, upheaval and a decrease in tourism.

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  7. Rights of Passage is becoming a joke…beaches being sold for a few rich folk and shoulders/verges of main roads sold off in Niagara Falls to prevent people protesting outside a local amusement park! what next??

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  8. Freeman Farrington

    A couple of “UI”, urban idiots bought property next door to us in Port Dover immediately posted no trespassing signs on the beach. This is a stretch that has been used for years by my family and others and has been keep clean by us. Now with the lake level low the stench and unsightliness of this section is a disgrace. I think I’ll file a lien against the new owners for the work we as a family have done on “their beach”. Wondering if they can in fact prove that they own this beach if they can be enforced to keep it clean and bearable for their neighbors to sit on their section of beach without having to endure the stink. Politicians in this area haven’t offered one shred of information or help in this matter, I wonder if they really do work for the taxpayers they pretend to represent.

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  9. Maybe we as tax payers should pay a little more and the beach owners pay a little less for the right to walk on OUR Federal land. This extra money could go to build natural lakeshore ersion control that all stake holders on the Lake would have to abide by . In stead of cement fortresses on some private property who can afford it to only terminate at the next property line because the land owner chooses not to continue with that design and either does nothing or something differant builds an automatic failure into the erosion controls. But if it was mandated that all Lakeshore must be natural ( Rock swales , goynes, offshore low islands and or reefs and most important the creation and enhancement of wetlands and where logistics permit beaches of sand and stone variety. This continuity of shore line would provide years of employment for our youth to build and maitain and give us all back our waterfronts.

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    • It appears that right of passage would apply to Provincial lake shorelines and reinforce the right we already have on Federal Lakes IE .The Great lakes and navigable waters.which is covered by other Acts.as well. what is needed is a bulldozer to sweep any fences that encroach on Federal land out of the way.sending the bill to the malefactores of the law.

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  10. I beleive,as in the states with their rite to bear arms, it should be our rite to beach access between the high and low water marks and into the water. I also believe that peoples littering on this property should be charged with littering. Its hard to believe that Canadians can be barred from their own waterfront land that we fought for and pay for all of our lives with our taxes, etc. There is allot of arrogance and hard feelings involved with this issue. I also think that the fences put up on our public property are a blight on the beach, kinda reminds me of some sort of prison. I think we can all work together as friendly neighbors to help care for and police this “shorewalk”: area and enjoy it together instead of segregation.

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  11. Greg Middleton

    Let me me be clear. I don’t own lakefront property. I am only against the rights of lawful property owners being abused by a government that appears bent on re-writing rules for the benefit of obtaining votes.
    Having said that, I do not believe people should be prevented from walking in the water as there are no rights to open water right of way and if that is happening it should be dealt with. I thought this issue surrounded access to lakefront to the water line which frankly if it is legally owned should be considered private just like anyone’s backyard.
    I hear comments in this column re: the rich….. Well the rich own beautiful properties elsewhere. Should I guess the non-rich have access to those as well in addition to the lakefront that is legally owned by these tax paying citizens? By the way the rich (top 5% of income earners in this country) pay 95% of all personal taxes received by the federal and provincial governments. They are what I like to call NET CONTRIBUTORS (a person who contributes more than they receive) and shouldn’t be held in contempt for that reason.

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  12. So what this is saying is since the rich have more money in the bank , part of it should be taken away and given to the poor… Cool. When do I get my share? …

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    • If anybody cuts off access to Federal land without a permit are they not law breakers?The Great Lakes for legal purposes are called inland seas and have been called that since the War of 1812. the shoreline belong to the Federal Government is that clear!!! this basic fact has withstood challenges in the law courts of several US States already.

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  13. I live in Fort Erie (ntario) and a Lake front property owner has just built a fence right down into the bulrushes just east of Buffalo Road . It’s the only fence on the whole of Crescent Beach . He also has cut out about a 50 foot gap of bulrushes in front of his property where ducks , geese and Trumpet Swans live . Dear also did migrate along that stretch of beach at night to get around Crescent Park . It only takes one person to block a mile of beach ! I can walk around it now because it’s frozen but in the spring in will be a foot of mud . The path to the beach has been there for many years . Hope he is enjoying his happy little world free of people walking by 100 yards from his house !

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  14. That homeowner does not have squatters rights on Federal sea (or lake) shore, the Town of Fort Erie should bulldoze that fence and send the bill to the homeowner. ASAP. The Federal Law supercedes that mans shenanigans.

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  15. Has anyone bothered to check the survey? If he owns to the water’s edge, he has the right to fence it.. In some mining patents, he might own land under water.. Put the blame where it belongs, on the government that sold the property…

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