A Commentary by Doug Draper
Let me begin with a question. Who owns the Great Lakes?
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.
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.
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 .
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