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By Christina Blizzard -- For the Toronto Sun

A line in the sand
COLUMNIST, Fri, May 7, 2004

Who owns the province's beaches? In Tiny township, where it's a battle to find a place to park your towel, Christina Blizzard sees a nasty trend that could become a wave.

ONE OF the great ironies of human nature is that we all want to  find our own little piece of paradise. Then when we've found it, we want to keep it all to ourselves. Woe betide anyone who dares trespass on our Shangri-la.

That pretty well sums up the battle of the beaches that's been raging in Tiny township for four years.

On the east shore of Georgian Bay just north of Wasaga Beach, gorgeous beaches such as Cawaja, Thunder, Nottawaga, Cawaja and Woodland  offer spectacular views.

There's trouble in paradise, however, as cottage owners whose land fronts on the water are increasingly asserting property rights over  the beach. "Private beach" signs are proliferating and  recently, the township has put No Parking signs for a kilometre along concession roads leading to the beach.

Activist Kathy Speers, who heads the group Save the Beaches, is  leading a drive to keep the beaches open to the public. It started  four years ago, when she set down her towel on the beach and was told to move by an OPP officer who told her she was trespassing. That sparked a protest, with thousands taking to the beaches.

For the past four years, provincial mediator Paul Torrie has been  trying to find some acceptable compromise between the shoreline  cottagers, many of whom are well-to-do Toronto residents, and locals  who've used the beaches for years.

The issue is back in the news with a leaked draft report, which  Speers believes set the stage for a "walk only" rule.  Forget about picnics, forget about beach volleyball. All you'll be able to do is walk on by.

"The draft cease-fire proposes segregation of the public,  and only those residents who are fortunate to live within 1,500 feet of the beach area will be privileged enough to have full use of the beaches, while the remaining group of citizens must keep  walking," Speers said in a letter to Torrie this week.

All this is complicated by a 1994 court ruling at Rowntree Beach,  when the high-water mark, traditionally the the line for private ownership, was removed as the boundary, and private cottages were  given ownership up to the water's edge. As water levels recede, it raises the question of how much land cottagers will be allowed to annex.

Big taxes

Judith Skelton Grant, who represents the federation of shoreline associations -- the cottagers -- says just because individuals may have used the beach in the past, it doesn't mean the general public  can use them now. Each individual must prove that right in court.

She says Speers' group wants public use of private property, and that isn't fair. The cottagers, who are paying big taxes on those properties, are being generous in just discussing the issue, she  argues.

"For land owners who are paying these huge taxes and who are on their own private land to get into a room to talk with their own neighbourhood about use of their private land is a pretty big act of generosity," she said. There are plenty of public parks in the area where people can picnic, says Skelton Grant, who has  owned a shoreline cottage for about 15 years.

Long-time Tiny resident George Lawrence, of the group Tiny Residents Working Together, hopes common sense will help the warring groups  find some common ground. While shoreline cottagers have the right to have reasonable restrictions on things like parking, garbage pickup and the number of people allowed on the beach, he says the  beaches have been used by local residents for generations.

A different time

"I can remember when neighbours came up here not to quarrel  and lay stakes out on the beach of who owns what," he says.

"They came up here to meet their neighbours on the weekend and they looked forward to work on helping their neighbour put a roof on his house," he recalls.

All this is costing taxpayers big bucks. The total bill so far for the mediator is $407,375.

Look, Tiny's line in the sand has the potential for setting a trend  around the province. We all used to take for granted our right to take a picnic and a towel and spend a day at the beach.

Sure, private property owners have rights. But there's a compromise  to be made here. Or do we really want a province were only a privileged few can sit on the beach?

Printed with permission from The Toronto Sun.


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