Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beach access

Twenty years ago, I was writing in the Toronto Star about the issue of public access to Georgian Bay shoreline beaches. At issue was the right to even walk on the 30 kilometres of beautiful sand beach on Nottawasaga Bay, north of the Wasaga Beach Provincial Park.
The water is very clean, the beaches are powdery golden sand, and the shoreline faces Nottawasaga Bay and the Niagara Escarpment across the bay. It's a ninety-minute drive from Toronto, but it's another world.
I said back then that the owners of waterfront cottages were using their economic, political and legal clout to effectively seize control of a huge amount of important recreational land within easy driving distance of Toronto. I argued this was something that would spread along the entire Canadian shore of the Great Lakes. Waterfront cottage owners vehemently denied this. They claimed their fight was for a 1000-metre stretch of shoreline that had special property rights. They said they had no intention of preventing public use of the rest of the shore.
They worked very hard to get me fired. They sent letters to the editor and complaints to the Ombud. I was also working for a small local newspaper and the cottagers wined and dined the owner of the paper to try to get me off the story.
They also put out their own newspaper, edited by the local mayor. Let's say the things they wrote about me were not particularly flattering and leave it at that.
It was a fun and interesting time to be a reporter. The Star and my assignment editors Kathleen Kenna, Kate Harries and Steve Tustin did not give in to the pressure. Neither did Ombud Don Sellar.
The Toronto Star has a pretty good update here.
You want to walk a beach in Ontario? Better do it soon, or you'll never be able to do it at all, outside of one of the minuscule provincial parks along the shore of the Great Lakes.
Here's what the Star reporter missed. Cottagers used Ontario's municipal election rules to seize control of local councils. (You can vote everywhere you own property . These folks started holding all-candidates meetings in Toronto and collected proxy votes). Once they did that, they kept "day trippers" away from undeniably public shoreline land (road allowances, small parks) by putting up No Parking - Tow Away signs along any road with walking distance.
They used Ontario's scandalous deed rules to seize public beach property. If someone issues you a deed, even to land that isn't theirs, and you get it registered, the land is yours. Every so often, someone's house is sold out from under them that way.
In other words, if someone steals your car and the cops find it, you get your car back. Someone sells your house and a clerk registers the deed, you're out on your ass, even though the registry office registers any deeds presented to it. You can sue, but you can only go after the thief, who is unlikely to cough up your money. And what does a lawsuit cost? Every once in a while, the papers write a sob story about this happening to some poor chump and everyone seems to be surprised. The government keeps promising to change this but never does.
The "cottagers" along the south Georgian Bay shore include judges, lawyers, politicians, very senior journalists, well-connected academics, and members of provincial tribunals, including the Ontario Municipal Board. They have effectively stolen 30 kilometres of shoreline, worth, as vacant land, (if you can find any), about $20,000 a metre. As the land has been privatized, the prices have skyrocketed. There are quite a few people with money and not much sandy beach.
There is another factor the Star reporter missed. For every waterfront cottager along the shore, there are about a dozen in "backlot" cottagees who bought or built when they had (or thought they had) access to the beach. A cottage anywhere without water access is a useless thing, even more so when the people inside can hear the waves but not see them. The enjoyment and equity of the people in these backlot cottages has plummeted, and they're the people making most of the squawk in this Georgian Bay beach area. People like you and me, who have no real estate near the beach, simply stay away and take our vacation somewhere else. Now, with the publicity from Balm Beach, even more of us will simply find some other place, one that's not as nice but that wants our business. This summer, we went to Grand Bend, a crowded beach area, but one that encourages people to visit.
That's what the waterfront cottagers want. Bad publicity for this formerly important tourist area is good for them.
The answer is a provincial law to take back the shoreline of all the Great Lakes to the high water mark. But Ontarians only care about this issue two months of the year. The cottagers, however, work on this every month.


ldm said...

same is true of sauble beach shoreline along lake huron. local ratepayers assoc is v. active. prone to harrassing the unsuspecting about 'environmental issues,' at least the slant that keeps neophytes off the beach. good story.

Anonymous said...

Also SO true about the residents of an area of Wasaga called Brock's Beach. One guy actually had the gall to come out of his house and kick us off the beach, when we were practically in the water! He put up a massive sign "Private Property- trespassers will be fined"! Where can I get some concrete info on the actual property lines??

Ottawa Watch said...

If you read the Star story, you'll see the cards are stacked in the waterfont cottagers' favor. The government dropped the old "high water rule" in 1951. Chances are the guy at Brock Beach was in his legal rights.

Anonymous said...

Good job Mark. One important issue the Star reporter missed, is that the cops have been ordered by the Solicitor General's office to not charge people with trespassing. If they did, the Crown would have to prove that the beach is private, and then the Grand Bend decision would come up. What power these pricks have.

Anonymous said...

Not to pick on the Star, but someone should caution them against quoting anyone from the municipal council without providing some basic context: That everyone on it was endorsed by FoTTSA and marches to their orders. So, any time I see one of the lapdogs being quoted and crying that they cannot address this issue, the reader should know that the LAST thing they want to do is wrest control back for the public. That would really defeat the purpose of stacking a council, wouldn't it?

Ottawa Watch said...

Just to let people know: FoTTSA is the Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline associations, which holds all-candidates meetings in Toronto, endorses a slate of pro-private beach candidates, then collects bthe proxy votes to ensure they are elected.

Donna said...

Greetings Mark from Tiny Township. Your readers may be interested in our website
Also there is a new group involved in trying to get a Bill passed in Ontario parliament for passage to the shores of all the Great Lakes...shorewalk...this group also has a website. A group in Balm Beach called PUBB (Preserving the Use of Balm Beach) is currently fundraising to take the issue of the Balm Bch fence to court - info on Save the Beaches website and we are still rallying for the support of the Attorney General.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mark for an extremely honest and accurate article.
A new non-waterfront Assoc. is up and running in Tiny Township and had our first Annual Meeting Sept.27. The site is
If you have any questions or comments please contact us.
As to the statement about the high water mark the issue of private beach property goes much further than that according to the Provincial Ministry, Municipal lawyers and The Boundaries Act.