Despite the urging of staff, city council pulled back on reclaiming the Old Lakeshore Road right-of-way in Bright’s Grove last week.
Instead, councillors voted unanimously to spend tens of thousands of dollars on preliminary design work for shoreline protection and a multi-use path on the 750-metre stretch between the Cull Drain and Mike Weir Park.
Only then, will they decide whether to try and reassert ownership of the contested land.
The issue has simmered for decades. Sarnia’s legal advisors say the 66-foot-wide road right-of-way is public property. Lake Huron erosion has threatened to wash away sections over the past 50 years, and city engineer David Jackson says protecting it should be a top priority.
Adding a multi-use path there and a bridge over the Cull Drain would link together a 4.6 kilometres of public lakefront trail, enhancing what is already one Sarnia’s greatest amenities, Jackson noted in a report.
But a handful of the 25 or so property owners with homes and cottages on that stretch of Lake Huron say the land belongs to them, and they oppose public access to their waterfront lots.
Four delegations appeared before council on May 9 to argue their case.
“I’m disgusted by the city’s flagrant arrogance in claiming their right to land that they’ve had no part in maintaining or protecting over the course of two catastrophic erosion events,” said Roger Griffiths, who said his family has owned a cottage on Passingham Drive since 1949.
The Griffiths family and their neighbours had to buy additional land in the 1950s just to access their lots after a section of Old Lakeshore Road washed away, he said.
Later, in the 1980s, the municipality – which was Sarnia Township at the time – offered no help with shoreline protection when badly needed. Griffiths called that an abdication of ownership, saying if it wasn’t for individual property owners paying for groynes and other shoreline protection nothing would be left of the right-of-way.
A group of citizens has urged the city for years to restore the historic Cull Drain bridge and assert ownership of the old road allowance. An online petition asking council to reclaim and protect the entire Bright’s Grove shoreline has more than 5,000 signatures.
Griffiths called the group a “very vocal but small cohort.”
Another property owner, Urszula Mika, said she doubts the public trail and shoreline work can be completed for the staff estimate of $10 million to $12 million, and suggested it could cost two to three times that.
She also said the pathway could attract mischief-makers and be difficult for police and fire personnel to access in an emergency.
Property owner Dr. Youssef Almalki urged council to confirm the 66-foot strip of land belongs to him and his neighbours.
Brothers Dan and Dave Lambert also made their case for ownership, but offered to settle with the city in exchange for allowing construction of a second dwelling on their lot.
The Lamberts said they have paperwork dating to the 1950s confirming the right-of-way belongs to them. But they don’t to engage in a legal battle with the city.
“You work with us and we’ll work with you,” Dan Lambert said.
After hearing from the property owners, council disregarded engineer David Jackson’s recommendation to reaffirm public ownership and voted instead to begin preliminary design work.
“We need to know what this is going to look like before we start bothering people with trying to take their land back,” said Coun. George Vandenberg.
A report on the preliminary design work could be ready by August.