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Waterfront owners say there’s another side to right-of-way fight

Cathy Dobson Dan Lambert’s family has owned waterfront property in Bright’s Grove for generations, and he’s not ready to concede an old road right-of-way belongs to anyone else.

Cathy Dobson

Dan Lambert’s family has owned waterfront property in Bright’s Grove for generations, and he’s not ready to concede an old road right-of-way belongs to anyone else.

“We’ve never worried or had issues with people walking along the right-of-way, but this is my family’s heritage,” says Lambert. “I don’t like the city coming in and taking something that is ours.”

Lambert’s great-grandparents bought 100 acres of waterfront land between Mike Weir Park and the Cull Drain.

“I have deeds that go back to 1919,” he said.

Several lots were sold over the years but Lambert and his brother, Dave, retain ownership of an acre on Lambert Drive immediately east of the Suncor Recreation Centre.

It’s part of a string of 25 or so properties on which public access to the waterfront has been disputed for years.

This summer, a grassroots group started a Facebook group called “Save the Old Lakeshore Right-of-Way.” They object to the way the landowners have encroached on the right-of-way with wooden decks and even a boathouse in one spot.

Group administrator Mark Andrews contends the public has a right to reclaim the unmaintained right-of-way, turning it into a waterfront path between the Cull Drain and Weir Park.

But Lambert, a retired pipefitter, said he has documentation proving his family paid taxes on the right-of-way until 2012.

For most of his life, the municipality relinquished care and control and encouraged residents to build and pay for waterfront protection, he said.

“I did work on that groin myself,” he said, pointing to a partial wall of sheet metal that juts up from the water in front of his property.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but we owned it right up until 2006 when MPAC (Municipal Property Assessment Corporation) told us that, suddenly, we didn’t.”

The Lamberts say they appealed the MPAC decision and continued to pay taxes while disputing ownership.

It wasn’t until 2011 the city sent them a letter saying they could apply for an adjustment in their taxes because Sarnia claimed the right-of-way.

Since then, the Lamberts haven’t paid taxes on the 66-foot strip of land that separates their yard from Lake Huron, but they say they want to.

“We don’t like that we use this land for free,” said Dave Lambert. “We believe it is ours and we want it.”

The brothers met with city staff about four years ago to convince them the right-of-way was theirs.

“The city solicitor was there and (late city engineer) Andre Morin, and we were told that they didn’t know what they were going to do,” said Lambert.

He hasn’t heard anything from City Hall since, but said he’s prepared a rebuttal if council wants to hear it.

City solicitor Scott McEachran said he recalls the meeting with Lambert and isn’t aware of any more recent action by the city, apart from a couple of public meetings to talk about the right-of-way.

“The city is on title as owning the land out there,” McEachran said.  “We have what was part of a roadway at one time.”

If Lambert or his neighbours want to dispute the title, they should take it up with the provincial registry office, McEachran recommended.

“They don’t have to convince me. They have to convince the provincial registry office.”

McEachran said city council has the legal authority to build a public trail along the right-of-way. But it would be costly.

“It’s rough terrain,” said McEachran. “There’s a fairly steep hill and it’s not a simple thing to do. This is why it’s taking so long.”