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.