Nothing cuts through to the core of the debate between those that believe all property should be private (notably the current US Presnit) and those that believe some, or even most, property should be held in common, as public property available for the enjoyment of all, than the issue of lakefront and riverfront (‘riparian’) access rights. Googling the topic brings up a horde of lawsuits, neighbour vs. neighbour fights, and political grandstanding. What is amazing is that, at least in North America, there appears to be no overarching principle, no constitutional right either to access of recreational and wilderness land (notably beach and waterfront), or alternatively to restrict access to such land as part of basic property ‘rights’. So these disputes are decided in the trenches — in municipal courtrooms, based most often on the wording of ancient deeds and easements than on principled grounds.
Yule Heibel has a delightful post this week that got me thinking about this again. She lives in Victoria BC, where my wife and I lived for five years, and where public rights of access to much (all?) waterfront areas are sacrosanct, under municipal law, except for rare ‘grandfathered’ cases. She exults in the freedom and the sense of community that such laws engender, and contrasts this with the situation in Massachusetts, where almost all waterfront areas are restricted to individual owners and “residents”. She says she learned how to covet from her years there. My reaction would be anger, not covetousness, and, like Yule, I might be tempted to chalk the difference up to Canadian vs. US culture. In my community, we only put up a fence if it is needed to keep pets in, and only then with permission of the neighbours and an open invitation to use the gates to pass through. The Toronto waterfront is almost entirely public access, with parks and walking trails running the entire breadth of the city.
But I would be wrong to chalk this up to Canada-US cultural differences. There are areas in the US where public beach and lake access are enshrined in at least municipal law. And there are areas in Canada where they are not. I remember going for a drive up to Lake Simcoe, about an hour North of Toronto, and being astonished at the signs wherever there was a lake view saying “No parking any time without resident sticker — strictly enforced”. Visitors could drive by, but not stop, not touch, this ‘private’ lake. And right in my own municipality there is a small park with soccer fields, apparently donated by a private citizen, with a municipal sign saying “Park use by permit only — no dogs allowed”.
As much as I am offended by these restrictions, no matter where they may be (I was equally astounded to find many beaches in the Caribbean off-limits to citizens, fenced and guarded to allow only foreign, paying guests in), I am perhaps even more amazed that, in the absence of any constitutional principle, the situation is not much worse. It says a great deal for the people of those communities that do protect the rights of citizens to the enjoyment of the ‘best’ land — waterfront, recreational, parkland and wilderness — that they do so in the face of those with money and power who would secrete these special lands for the exclusive use of the privileged. I don’t know how it might be worded, but I believe it is time we enshrined the right of all citizens to access and enjoyment of all such land without discrimination, before the forces of privatization take away what is left, before the final act in the Tragedy of the Commons is writ.
What is the law where you live? Is it as patchwork and arbitrary as it is here? Or are you able to say, as Yule does,
This is mine, it’s all mine, it all belongs to me, and it belongs to you, and to you, and to you, too! It’s ours, ours, ours! How do you do?, lovely to see you, I hope you, too, are enjoying our beautiful land! This meadow?, this mountain?, this ocean?, this view? Yes, it’s mine, and it’s magnificent, isn’t it? And I know you must believe this, because of course it’s yours, too! We share this!