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Sarnia’s “lost” beach: Battle brewing over public access to lakefront right-of-way

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George Mathewson 

A ribbon of prime Sarnia shoreline that stretches for 800 metres (one half mile) along a sandy Lake Huron beach is public property that should be made accessible for every resident to enjoy, a city man says.

The waterfront between the Cull Drain and Mike Weir Park in Bright’s Grove cannot be reached by road and is generally perceived as belonging to adjacent property owners.

But a public right-of-way that fell into disuse 40 years ago when parts of old Lakeshore Road washed into the lake still belongs to the city, and should be reopened to allow access to the beach, said Dan Moore, whose family once farmed the land at Moore’s Lane.

“It is not private property,” he said. “The city didn’t relinquish the right-of-way. The land is still there. It may be washed out in sections but it’s still there, and people should be able to get to it.”

City engineer Andre Morin confirmed Sarnia does indeed own the 66-foot-wide lakefront road allowance inherited from the former Sarnia Township.

“That is our legal position, that that right-of-way is still there. But folks over the years have encroached on it. They’ve built decks and they’ve built boathouses and they’ve put walls in and everything else on the city property. So now it’s not an easy situation.”

At a public meeting in Bright’s Grove a year ago some of the two dozen landowners threatened legal action if the city attempted to affirmed ownership and remove their property improvements.

“That’s the dilemma, so we’re not sure how we’re proceeding with this,” Morin said.

The seeds of the dispute can be traced to sloppy bookkeeping and a violent 1973 storm that washed out much of old Lakeshore Road between Telfer and Brigden side roads.

The new Lakeshore Road opened half a kilometre inland from the lake to reconnect Sarnia with Bright’s Grove, and the former township left the waterfront landowners to fend for themselves, said Moore, who is related to some of the impacted families.

“The people there were worried and the township said to them, ‘We are not repairing the shoreline.’ If they wanted to maintain their property they could go ahead and do whatever they wanted on that right-of-way, but (the township) was not going to repair it.”

Whatever verbal agreements might have been made, the city has yet to see any documentation supporting any landowner lakefront claims, Morin said.

The issue resurfaced June 4 at a Bright’s Grove meeting called to discuss the closed Cull Drain Bridge, which is the point at which Old Lakeshore ends and the disputed right-of-way begins.

City council is set to discuss the issue June 30. If and when the 104-year-old span is refurbished or replaced it will still be a bridge to nowhere until the access issue is settled.

Moore wants Sarnia to establish an eight-foot walkway from the bridge to Weir Park on the right-of-way, but one that’s respectful of the landowners who have done what they could to prevent further shoreline erosion.

“Let’s co-operate,” he said. “Let’s try and give the people of Sarnia a nice pathway that goes all the way to Bright’s Grove. You could park at Mike Weir Park and walk along that walkway, go down there with your family, and enjoy the beach.”

Morin said if Sarnia does reassert ownership of the unmaintained right-of-way it will also need to invest in expensive shoreline protection, like that already done at Bright’s Grove.

In the meantime, it’s negotiating with Suncor Energy for a temporary easement at its recreation centre so that people walking or cycling to the bridge don’t have to cross private property.

“(The shoreline) is a gem, really. It would be a real shame to just sort of give that up. It’s a nice link right across the frontage of the water, Morin said.

“But it’s a really tough situation. We’re trying to figure out a solution to make this thing work, and I don’t know if we’re going to make a lot of friends doing it.”



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