Ontario lawmaker wants to legalize public beachcombing

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Fort Erie Beach Blockade observed by Kim Craitor who proposed the Right of Passage Act in Ontario, Canada. Image via Kim Craitor's Office

A bill proposed in Ontario, Canada may let the general public walk along the Great Lakes shoreline instead of just the people who own lakefront property.

Right now they can’t.

Shoreline property owners in Ontario have privileges right down to the lakes.

“Cottage owners take advantage of that,” said Marcia Valiante, a law professor at University of Windsor, “They put up barriers in the water.”

The existing laws are unclear, she said. This bill tries to clarify the situation.

The proposed Great Lakes Right of Passage Act would allow the public to walk between the shoreline and the high water mark of a Great Lake. It was proposed by Kim Craitor, a member of the provincial parliament.

“Property owners sell their property on the shorelines at a higher cost than the value of land since they assume they own a part of the lake,” Craitor said.

Similar debates about public access to the shoreline prevail in the U.S.

Each state owns a share of the lakes in public trust, said James Olson, a Michigan attorney specializing in environmental law.

“Drinking water, swimming and boating are protected for citizens,” said Olson.

“When you look at public access, the bottomlands cannot be handed over to private owners.  The landowner cannot exclude people from walking on the shoreline.”

But walking on the shoreline of the Great Lakes is not allowed for the public in Canadian provinces and some Great Lakes states, Olson said.

Sand beach with a private beach sign & fence which is put up every summer to keep everybody off in Ontario. Image via Ontario Shore-walk Association Files

Landowners assume the low-lying land by the lake to be their property.

In Michigan and Wisconsin the public may walk along the shoreline of the Great Lakes between the water and the high water mark on land.  In Illinois and Indiana people need to have their feet in the water to walk around a lake’s edges. In Pennsylvania and Minnesota the low water mark is the dividing line between public and private property. Ohio courts are currently deliberating the issue where a decision is expected within the next few months, said Chris Shafer, a professor at Cooley Law School in Michigan.

Shafer advised the Michigan Supreme Court through an amicus brief during the Glass vs. Glock beach access case in 2005 in Michigan. An amicus brief is one where someone who is not a party to a case volunteers information to assist a court in deciding a matter before it.

The court ruled in favor of the public being allowed to walk on the shoreline of Lake Huron up to the high water mark. It defined that mark as the visible boundary line on land formed due to ‘erosion, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, or other easily recognized characteristic’.  So the public in Michigan can now walk along this shoreline freely.

Craitor is trying to achieve the goal of free public access to the Great Lakes shoreline through legislation instead of through courts, said Valiante.

If passed, the bill will outlaw the frequent practice of putting up fences in the water to keep the public out, she said. The bill addresses right of passage by foot. People will be allowed to walk on the shoreline, but not stop or carry out any other beach activities there.

“I came up with the concept of the Right of Passage bill and introduced it into parliament and once the word was spread across Ontario, other communities were in support of the bill because they were facing the same issues in their communities,” Craitor said.

Laws allowing people to walk along the shoreline don’t exist around the Great Lakes in Canada, said Craitor.

The provincial election coming up in October makes it harder to pass the bill, said Craitor.

But he wants the issue on the floor now to create awareness and support for it. The issue will definitely be picked up after the election and since it has already been introduced it will have more support then, Craitor said.

It has important, practical consequences for tourist spots such as those on the shore of Lake Erie, he said.  “For example, Fort Erie has a historical lighthouse where you actually need to walk on the shoreline to get to it.”

He hopes other similar laws will be set up around the country for other lakes.

9 thoughts on “Ontario lawmaker wants to legalize public beachcombing

  1. THE STATEMENT BELOW IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE. IF IT WERE FACTUAL, THERE WOULD BE NO ISSUES IN THE COURTS AND NO NEED TO PASS ANY NEW LAW IN ONTARIO.

    “Waterfront properties in most of Ontario (in the upper Great Lakes anyway) do not go to the edge of the water. Many properties were surveyed leaving a 66′ shoreline or road reserve. Most property owners can buy this 66′ reserve by asking their local municipality or the Ministry of Natural Resources (if in an area with no local municipality or if it is a shoreline reserve – a road reserve is considered to be a municipal responsibility ). The lakeside edge of this 66′ reserve is generally at the high water mark. For Great Lakes shoreline, most of it has a wave-washed shore leaving an area wide enough between this 66′ reserve and lake to walk along.”

  2. I live in the city near Park Ave. My home cost over $270,000.00 This is close price to the higher beach front homes. I disliked some of the people that travel past my home during events nearby and just random drunk people. I deal with beer bottles, noise and all the same thing these people on the beach have. I clean up others messes. I have called 911. I still do not have the right to restrict anybody from sitting on the side walk, on my property. If they are naked or drunk or whatever…I call the police. The boater and the public have a right to use the shoreline and the water in front of your homes. Sorry but you have to face it and I am sure the publicity of this movement will make your beach more popular.

  3. I think all this controversy may end up biting the homeowner’s on the beach in the butt. Right of passage laws date back forever. On the shores of the great lakes, federal law allows passage up to and including 15 ft from the high water on “private “waterfront

    These laws are described as a public easement on private land. I have witness myself beachfront owners telling a parent that a child was not allowed to play in the sand next to the water. I do not agree with how the land was acquired or how some of the water front owners act in regards the ownership of the property. There may also be an argument of where the high water mark is. Is it where some docks are still present where the water was before the erection of the piers entering the bay? If so, almost the beach as a whole is public. The ability for towns to write laws within 1500 ft of the shoreline is given by New York. I am sure that New York did not mean for the rules to be written so a group of private homeowners have special rights in a public waterway. I am also not sure if New York even had the authority to make laws on federal waters. If this passes by the town, I think we should take it to the next level and get some politicians involved. They will overturn it and I believe the right of passage will make more of the public aware (non-boaters) that they have a right to be along the shore. Who knows this may even be a good thing and the beach area will become public… That is what happened in Florida when owners try to restrict the public>>>>

  4. It is not always in the constitution to have such law as prescribed in the draft schema. But the awareness shall be most concluded in any format.

  5. Waterfront properties in most of Ontario (in the upper Great Lakes anyway) do not go to the edge of the water. Many properties were surveyed leaving a 66′ shoreline or road reserve. Most property owners can buy this 66′ reserve by asking their local municipality or the Ministry of Natural Resources (if in an area with no local municipality or if it is a shoreline reserve – a road reserve is considered to be a municipal responsibility ). The lakeside edge of this 66′ reserve is generally at the high water mark. For Great Lakes shoreline, most of it has a wave-washed shore leaving an area wide enough between this 66′ reserve and lake to walk along.

  6. Joe,
    It wouldn’t entail an easement since the area below the high water mark is already considered to be public property, not that of a private landowner. Since it is already public, it would not require compensation. As for liability, the landowner would not be liable unless he creates a hazard which is the result of gross negligence. (See Michigan Recreational Trespass Act as an example, nearly all states have similar protections against liability provided a fee is not charged.)

  7. Would this be an easement across the property? Would the property owner be compensated for encumbering his property this way? Would the property assessment be reduced to reflect this change? Would the property owner be liable if someone is hurt or drowns after accessing the lake from their property?

  8. In Michigan and Wisconsin the public may walk along the shoreline of the Great Lakes between the water and the high water mark on land. This is the way it should be throughout the Great Lakes. The Ohio case will be the one to watch with their Republican network doing everything they can to steal the GL shore line for their rich campaign contributors.

  9. The needs of the public at large are crucial. For anyone to think that the millions of people or even just one person, should not be allowed to walk the shores merely because they own a property on it is short sighted. To block access or passage is wrong. No one person or home owners association should be allowed to prevent others the ability to enjoy public waters. Niagara Falls was once fenced off from view by a selfish man that charged people to look through a hole in the fence. Is that what we want for our great Lakes? I’d say not. If you want to see an even bigger abuse of public waters, look at what the New York Power Authority is doing to the Lower Great Lakes. Their “Ice Boom” is killing them. It disrupts a 12,000 year old process of rejuvenation and stalls the natural conveyor or waste products and nutrients. read more at http://www.bantheboom.com thank you

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