Waterfront behind dozens of houses goes up for sale

By David Reevely
Ottawa Citizen
Feb 04, 2013

OTTAWA — If you’re interested in 27 hectares of beach and prime woodland in Constance Bay, and you have $1.68 million to spare, Royal LePage has a deal for you.

You’ll be in for a lot of unpleasantness with the neighbours, including your new city councillor, and some very tall regulatory hurdles if you want to do anything but stroll around your new property or maybe put in a canoe.

Constance Bay is notorious for its unusual and community-rending beach ownership, particularly along Bayview Drive. But this is separate from the ongoing battles over whether outsiders can park themselves on towels at idyllic Sand Point along the Ottawa River at Bayview Drive’s east end. This is along Constance Bay’s north riverbank, a new front in the fight.

“If there’s anything that can tear this community apart, it’s the beach,” said West Carleton-March Councillor Eli El-Chantiry, who’s one of the neighbours on Bayview.

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These days, new beachfront lots typically include the land down to the annual high-water mark, wherever that happens to be, and give the public access to whatever dry land might temporarily appear below that. Not in Constance Bay. On this section of Bayview Drive, dozens of homeowners have lots that extend a certain distance from the road and then they end. Beyond them is the beach — which was never carved off the original property grant from the Crown, never surveyed, never improved or taxed.

“This is land that was left from the subdivision,” El-Chantiry said. The homeowners along Bayview have routinely used it, but officially, the beach and a large piece of fallow woodland on the other side of the street all belongs to a numbered company, 1770872 Ontario Ltd. El-Chantiry said the company belongs to the estate of the late land developer Peter Smith, who bought it from the estate of Constance Bay’s original developer Fred Baldwin, who died before his project was finished.

“You cannot put a structure, you cannot put any fencing, you cannot put anything,” El-Chantiry said. The homeowners next to the beach have been paying beachfront taxes, he said, because everyone understands they have access to the water and nobody’s going to build anything to block their views.

But it went up for sale last week, with a big sign hammered into the ground advertising the fact.

Real-estate agent Beth Bonvie agreed the waterfront is practically untouchable. “The waterfront, no, you can’t do anything there,” she said. But the woodland, the bulk of the property next to city-owned Torbolton Forest, has some potential, she said.

“In conversations that we have had with the city, with the [Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority], we were told it would be possible,” she said. Being next to the sensitive forest, the woods for sale are zoned as environmentally protected land — and it’s low-lying and most of it is either flood plain or “flood fringe,” to boot — but construction on it isn’t outright banned. Challenging, maybe, but theoretically possible.

She declined to say exactly who her clients are, beyond the numbered company, because they haven’t given her permission to disclose it.

El-Chantiry believes the practical problems would be too great to do anything with the woods, but he’s primarily concerned with the beach and what a sale might mean to the delicate balance in the neighbourhood.

“Where is the property line on the waterfront?” he asked rhetorically. “In front of my house, the ice is right to my retaining wall, so that’s as far as I own.”

But how much space is there, officially, between that retaining wall and the Ottawa River’s variable bank? Who can tell? “Sometimes we have to put on rubber boots just to get to the house. It’s like Gilligan’s Island.”

Because the Ottawa is a navigable waterway, people have a right of access to it, El-Chantiry said. In theory, a sufficiently militant beach owner might walk up and down throwing sunbathers off his property, but he’d be hard-pressed to keep people from using the beach to get to the water.

He conceded it’s in everyone’s interest except that of Peter Smith’s heirs to keep the beach and the woods in their hands. The city has no interest in turning the beach into an official park with lifeguards and litter containers, he said, and it’s legally simpler (for the city, at least) if somebody else owns it.

“What I would do with it is nothing,” he said. But if the owners want to get rid of it, he said, it could probably be sold to the city for its fair market value — which he believes is far short of what’s implied by the current asking price — or handed over for a charity receipt.

Bonvie suggested the owners of beachfront houses might be the most likely buyers, to get possession of the property between them and the river.

See also: "Logical Fallacy of Anachronism"