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OPINION: Sarnia needs to reclaim the lakefront right-of-way

George Mathewson The question of who owns half a mile of prime Lake Huron waterfront near Bright’s Grove could be resolved as early as next spring.
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This photo shows a piece of the Old Lakeshore Road right-of-way just east of the Cull Drain. Glenn Ogilvie file photo

George Mathewson

The question of who owns half a mile of prime Lake Huron waterfront near Bright’s Grove could be resolved as early as next spring.

The sandy beach between the Cull Drain and Mike Weir Park is inaccessible and for decades now has generally been perceived as belonging to the adjacent property owners.

But the right-of-way under Old Lakeshore Road was never legally surrendered after the asphalt collapsed in a 1973 storm, city hall says, so the land is still public property.

City staff are planning to host a public meeting or two by March, after which council will need to settle a dispute that has been simmering for years now.

Basically, councillors have two options:

1 - Reaffirm public ownership and order the homeowners over time to remove the decks, boat houses and fences they’ve built on the right-of-way, to eventually create a waterfront trail.

2 – Declare the right-of-way surplus land, sell it to the adjacent property owners and be done with it.

The temptation, of course, will be to sell and let the 26 homeowners pay for their own expensive and needed shoreline protection.

But giving up on this unmaintained municipal right-of-way would be a huge mistake.

We’re talking about 800 metres of sandy shoreline bordering one of the largest and cleanest lakes in the world.

Waterfront land is finite and precious. It’s why Herman Melville devoted the first chapter of Moby Dick to water’s magical allure. It's why a home in Sarnia costs more on Beach Lane than Sunset Lane.

And it’s why tourism officials pitch potential visitors on Sarnia’s beautiful beaches, which are indeed beautiful but largely off-limits to most of us. Other than Canatara, Bright's Grove and a few leftovers at the end of major thoroughfares like Murphy and Modeland, the city’s beaches are privately owned.

To understand why Sarnia should reaffirm ownership of its “lost beach” you need only look to the riverfront.

What was once a polluted industrial zone on Sarnia Bay was transformed into Centennial Park and added to piece by piece to create a contiguous public space that’s the envy of many Great Lakes cities. The riverfront is a treasure that required foresight and determination.

City engineering staff recently located the original survey stakes with a metal detector and confirmed the right-of-way is intact, though narrower than the original 66 feet in a few places.

With a new (or the old) bridge spanning the Cull Drain, Sarnia would have one continuous lakefront trail running from Rainbow Cove near the foot of Telfer Road to the mouth of Cow Creek near St. John in the Wilderness Church, a distance of more than four kilometres.

The lost beach right-of-way is simply too important to current and future generations of Sarnians to let slip in the name of expediency.

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