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McDONALD: Beach access is all about power ā€” who's got it and who doesn't

August 31, 2017 - 12:15 PM

Restoring full public access to Kelowna’s beaches should be easy. Send out a few cease-and-desist letters on government letterhead, fire up the chainsaws and start legally walking the beach.

But nothing worthwhile comes easy and solving the simple problem of illegal encroachment means wading into a historical morass of ill-defined jurisdiction, local government inertia (purposeful or not) and social inequality.

Add in well-heeled property owners with influence and resources to both construct illegal docks or retaining walls and defend them with legal action and you can see what the organizers of last Sunday’s inaugural Walk the Beach protest are up against.

Most telling might be one protester’s sign proclaiming it the First Annual beach walk, the implication being reclaiming the waterfront at the high-water mark could take years.

Organizers Brenda Bachmann and Al Janusas have done an able job refocusing the attention of local residents on an issue that has been festering in this city for decades.

Both of them spoke diplomatically to supporters before the march about education before enforcement and the need to engage with local politicians but it’s obvious to me it will take a lot more than a beach walk to knock down these impediments to free access.

While some hardcores waded through water to mark the entire foreshore, the march itself was a series of zig-zags on and off the beach through city-maintained gated beach accesses and back onto the street where access (or even a view) was limited by the high fences and security cameras at the ass end of luxury homes. 

Those beach accesses are where most of the chokepoints to walking the length of beach have come into being as the homeowners beside them have piled up rocks and allowed large trees to grow out. Others, less subtle, have simply built fences right into the lake.

I've been accused in past columns on this subject of failing to tell the other side, about the condoms, cigarettes and bad behaviour they must endure when the rabble are allowed onto the beach.

I say find me a waterfront property owner willing to argue why it’s okay for them to build an illegal dock or a fence jutting into the lake. Happy to take your call.

Does Kelowna have bigger problems? Surely. The recent surge of overdoses is a obviously much graver social crisis and deserves attention and action by both government and private citizens.

However, my ability to hike unimpeded from downtown to Gyro Beach is not just a whiny first-world problem but another sign of the widening and worrisome inequality gap between our richest and poorest citizens, done up Kelowna-style.

The stark contrast between the homeless aimlessly milling on Leon Avenue and the tourists gawking at the lakefront luxury homes on Abbott Street just a few hundred metres beyond the Bennett bridge tunnel could not be more pronounced.

With Okanagan Lake on one side, the other half retreat behind oversized walls and spiked gates with security guards and city bylaws controlling access at tax-payer funded control points.

Welcome to Kelowna! Walk the Beach protesters clamber over rocks during last weekend's demonstration.
Welcome to Kelowna! Walk the Beach protesters clamber over rocks during last weekend's demonstration.

Mayor Colin Basran was quick to offer support a few months ago when Janusas and Bachmann managed to dredge up the issue once more for local residents but the mayor has been just as quick to point out the limits of municipal jurisdiction.

(Perhaps that’s why the mayor and city councillors were entirely absent from the weekend march but I’d like to think some of them would see the political value in supporting this, given municipal elections are just over a year away. )

Despite the mayor’s support, previous councils been complicit over the years, intentionally or otherwise, in creating these beach enclaves by blocking and controlling public beach accesses.

The irony is these gated beach accesses (locked at night) have combined with the high walls, spiked gates and security cameras on private property to create an almost continuous enclave from the Bennett Bridge tunnel (also locked at night) to Gyro Beach. And this does not take into account other waterfront residential areas both north and south of downtown Kelowna.

If the appeals for enforcement already made go unheeded, social media might end up being the answer.

I’m not big on the shame game but if mayor and council aren’t going to show serious leadership on this issue, I’m all for outing the offenders and sending multiple requests for compliance directly to lake front property owners.

Follow it up with short but colourful protest marches, not on the isolated beaches (no one can see you there) but right in front of their houses. Both Facebook and Twitter are guaranteed to be there, as will local media.

Janusas and his group PLANKelowna have vowed to make this a municipal election issue next October but Kelowna voters must follow through by asking candidates the hard questions about their right to foreshore access.

Stonewalling on this seems to have been standard government operating procedure in the past but perhaps the new NDP/Green coalition government would be more open to enforcing the laws already on the books. Send your nearest NDP MLA an email or letter suggesting just that.

There’s more. If the system is complaint-based, start making those complaints and following them through the regulatory process. It’s tiresome but effective as evidence-gathering should further legal action against the government be required.

Dock builders, landscapers and related trades must refuse to construct illegal docks or retaining walls. Comply or lose your ability to bid and work on these types of environmentally sensitive projects.

All Kelowna residents have a role to play if and when high water access is restored by respecting the rights of shoreline property owners (they do have some) and supporting council at budget time when they assign resources to maintenance, security and upkeep.

Taking it a step beyond mere access would be a good idea. Knox Mountain Park has its Friends and Kelowna’s beaches could use some similar love with the support of a city-supported non-profit group.

Even without this latest populist uprising over beach access, the large scale destruction of docks around Okanagan Lake from spring flooding has in itself given the provincial ministry in charge of their regulation a rare opportunity to force a reset.

Let's make sure this opportunity doesn't float away.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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