TOWN OF THE BLUE MOUNTAINS—A dispute over a thin, rugged strip of publicly owned Georgian Bay shoreline has poisoned paradise for owners of a community of multi-million-dollar homes.
The trouble began a few years ago when owners started moving into the new Peaks Bay East subdivision, across from a private ski club halfway between Collingwood and Thornbury, and soon clashed over access to the fossil-rich stretch of grey shale beach that separates the water from a row of six mega-houses.
The Town of the Blue Mountains hired an expert consultant to come up with a plan to balance beach access with the need to protect the scientifically significant formation, designated an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI).
The town adopted much of that plan in 2018. A year later, no one is happy.
Last summer, the town installed a rock and vegetation barrier along the drainage ditch the non-shoreline residents had used to access the beach. While the town said its’ purpose is to protect fossils — and for public safety when the water is high — some residents see the blockage as cover for waterfront owners wanting to turn public land into a private playground.
The fight has led to accusations of intimidation and threats. Residents have been accused of destroying plants to cut a pathway to the shoreline. Fossil-admirers and the shorefront-deficient owners are lined up against the waterfront cottagers and the town.
“Everybody who bought in this subdivision was told we’d have access” to that shoreline, says Karen Kristy, a retired teacher who lives in a home near — but not on — the water.
Earlier this year, a bylaw officer gave Kristy a ticket after she was told she had been recorded on video destroying vegetation near the waterfront. She says she pulled out some “noxious weeds” blocking the path she and her husband Mike use to walk their German Shepherd. She plans to fight the ticket in court later this month.
Meanwhile, she claims, the waterfront owners are happy the barrier blocks people from walking in front of their homes. “They’re all in favour of the rock wall,” she says.
The waterfront owners vigorously dispute that characterization.
The beach is “public property, as beachfront should be,” says John Ferraro, a Toronto businessman who owns one of the shoreline properties.
“The fight going on here is positioned as rich waterfront owners who want to be mean to the common people… who don’t have the same ability to enjoy the water,” he says.
“It villainizes us, which I think is completely unfair.”
The fight has become so ugly that at least one owner is considering selling their dream home in the subdivision. And both sides say the showdown could be headed to court — though neither is willing to discuss their legal positions.
“People are heated on both sides… and both sides make some very interesting points,” says Alar Soever, mayor of the Town of the Blue Mountains.
Council in July passed a resolution for an new independent review of the town’s parks management plan, approved by the previous council.
The current council, voted in last fall, is looking for a solution “that ensures equal public access” while protecting the beach, Soever says.
One challenge is that the landscape has literally changed dramatically since the last report. At low levels water levels, the beach is a wide and easily walkable, but Lake Huron has since risen to cover all but a six-foot area of walkway, completely blocked by the barrier.
That change means “some solutions discussed in previous reports are no longer viable,” Soever says.
A report is expected sometime this fall.
“We thought it was appropriate to make sure we have a solution that works for everybody, but I suspect it will be a solution that everybody is equally unhappy with,” Soever says.
(He plays down any pending litigation. The fact that both sides have said they have legal arguments is another reason to get an independent report that can head off litigation, he said.)
The dispute is not merely a fight between the neighbours — town council has also heard from a local high school science teacher who complained his students can’t access the shoreline to study the 455-million-year-old trilobite fossils on the shale rock.
This is an attempt by wealthy people to “deny the public right to access public land,” says Bryden Jones, who doesn’t live in the subdivision but teaches in nearby Collingwood.
Blocking access, Jones wrote in an email to the Star, represents a slippery slope “for wealthy people to privatize everything.”
The waterfront owners insist no one is trying to block access to public land. But they can’t understand the insistence of some to use the drainage ditch as a walkway — it was never intended for that purpose — when just steps away Delphi Point Park provides access to the other side of the beach.
The real culprit hindering beachfront access are high water levels, they say.
“No one has a problem with people walking out there on the shale when the water was low. It’s only when it came up a couple of years ago that this became an issue,” says Tom Talbot, sitting in his neighbour Ron Duke’s living room overlooking Georgian Bay.
“There are six of us who bought on the waterfront and we paid a premium and we recognize, when we bought, that we don’t own to the water, and that other people have access to that property. And knowing that we still bought and built here.”
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Talbot says they’re not pleased the town is revisiting the barrier — a move he says was instigated “by the guy across the street.”
That guy would be Vic Vandergust, a lawyer who once worked for the subdivision’s developer and now lives at Peaks Bay — in a home not on the water’s edge.
He doesn’t buy that the waterfront residents — “Millionaires’ Row” as he calls his neighbours — are fine with people walking in front of their homes.
He points to their unsuccessful attempt to buy the waterfront property a few years ago from the town.
(“It’s true,” Talbot agrees. “We’d love to own there,” but the deal didn’t happen, he says.)
In the past few months, Vandergust has run ads in the local newsletter with before and after photos of the shoreline, under headlines such as “Public Land or Private?” and invited anyone concerned “about public land being blocked” to contact the town clerk.
“Previously you could walk here,” he says on a guided tour one recent morning, waving his arms and kicking away at the thicket to clear a path to where the waves are crashing onto the narrow beach.
The waterfront owners don’t want the public walking in front of their homes at all, Vandergust says — “allegedly to protect the trees, allegedly to protect the rocks.”
Vandergust points out a series of large stone steps — he derisively calls them the “Stairway to Heaven” — that straddle public and private land leading to an eye-popping, 8,000-square-foot California-style cottage belonging to celebrity hairstylist Marc Anthony Venere.
“Why should one property owner have stairs to the waterfront when the public does not?” Vandergust asks.
He and others have sent town staff photos and videos of people having barbecues, setting up fire pits and placing furniture on the town-owned land.
Vandergust admits the public access issue might seems less “dramatic” with much of the shoreline under water. But it’s the principle of the thing, he says, blaming Venere for planting trees and vegetation in a way that deliberately block access.
Venere disputes he’s done anything wrong. He says it’s well within his right — and the town’s — to replant vegetation illegally removed by residents. He argues the subdivision plan calls for a “privacy buffer” of trees that separates his lot from the public property — and that the replanted trees replace ones wiped out after a tornado in 2009.
“It’s a crazy, ridiculous situation that’s gone on here,” Venere says, standing inside his home’s main living area filled with luxurious furnishings. A two-storey wall of windows offers a view of a pool and landscaped backyard — and Georgian Bay below. (A glossy real estate magazine called the house “a modern masterpiece.”)
The hair product mogul — he has a namesake product line — agrees with Vandergust on this point: the conflict has turned a tranquil setting toxic.
He thinks some of the rancor infecting the tiny community might stem from incorrect assumptions about him, even jealousy.
“Beautiful homes — people draw certain conclusions that’s not necessarily true,” he says. “People come here and they look and then they hear ‘Marc Anthony’ and — whatever, I’m not like that. I’m just a normal, humble, friendly person who happened to do well in my hair-cutting career.”
As for the “Stairway to Heaven,” Venere says he had permission from the town to place steps on public property — and, besides, he sold his jet ski after complaints he was storing it on town land.
Down the block, Ferraro, Venere’s waterfront neighbour, had just returned from a four-hour bike ride when he reflected on a controversy he says is causing him anxiety and stress.
He says he doesn’t want to restrict access to what remains of the beach, he said, smoothing the peaks in his hair left by his helmet.
Ferraro says he also never loses sight of the fact that “this is a privilege for all of us to come here … and just enjoy the good karma and peace and nature.”
He recalls what he says a houseguest told him on a recent visit: “Isn’t it ironic, you get to spend time in paradise and people want to fight about it.”