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Battle over $150K beachfront wall pits neighbour against neighbour in Grand Bend, Ont.

Ryan Finch's cottage, pictured here, sits atop a bluff that, during high water on Lake Huron, is slowly being swallowed by water. He built the wall to keep his deck from falling into the water. Since the stop work order was issued, the $150,000 wall has begun to collapse. (Patterson Engineering - image credit)
Ryan Finch's cottage, pictured here, sits atop a bluff that, during high water on Lake Huron, is slowly being swallowed by water. He built the wall to keep his deck from falling into the water. Since the stop work order was issued, the $150,000 wall has begun to collapse. (Patterson Engineering - image credit)

A wealthy London, Ont., family and the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority (ABCA) are at odds over the fate of a nearly 100-metre stone wall built without a permit, one the family says was necessary to protect three Grand Bend properties that are as vulnerable as they are valuable due to their proximity to Lake Huron.

The battle began in the fall of 2019 when neighbours complained about the construction of the wall, which runs the length of three properties owned by the Finch family inside Grand Bend's exclusive Beach O' Pines, a private gated community that hugs the shoreline southwest of the beach town's main drag.

The conservation authority issued a stop work order before the $150,000 wall could be completed and charged Ryan Finch, his father Brian and mother Georgina under the Conservation Authority Act for building the structure without a permit. All three pleaded guilty in a Sarnia court on Dec. 5, 2022.

Now, the three will appear in court again, on Jan. 26, for a sentencing hearing during which the court could impose a fine and possibly order the wall dismantled at the owner's expense — an estimated $50,000.

The dispute is a high-profile example of a conflict that's roiled shoreline communities on the Great Lakes for years, as neighbours challenge neighbours in a clash of homeowners' rights and the environment — over who gets to decide how beachfront property is protected against the shifting sands, which have only been accelerated by climate change.

Family says they're targeted over name recognition

Patterson Engineering
Patterson Engineering

The Finch family, who preside over Finch Auto Group — an empire of eight auto dealerships in London, Sarnia and Georgetown, Ont. — said they feel unfairly targeted by the conservation authority.

They allege the authority is using their wealth and name recognition to make a public example of them.

 

What I did was to protect my property and to keep the beach clear, and they're twisting what I did and trying to make it sound like something it wasn't. - Ryan Finch, cottage owner

"What I did was to protect my property and to keep the beach clear, and they're twisting what I did and trying to make it sound like something it wasn't," said Ryan Finch, president of Finch Auto Group and the owner of two of the cottages.

Of the three properties, one is his personal cottage. The other is a rental property he owns. The third, owned by his parents Brian and Georgina Finch, is a lavish three-storey structure that includes an elevator, a 3,500-bottle wine cellar and a dining room that seats 20 people, enough to host the extended Finch family.

Ryan Finch said the new wall was built to replace an old one — a 50-year-old rock structure he described as being so jagged and crumbling, it had become an obstacle and a potential danger to anyone walking along the shore.

Finch Auto Group
Finch Auto Group

Finch wanted to clear the rocks and build a new wall to guard against the rising lake, threatening to swallow his deck and part of the bluffs upon which his personal cottage sits.

He needed a permit and quick — but it was easier said than done.

"It was made clear to us we were not going to get a permit. So we took matters into our own hands and we built a solution in front of that old retaining wall to keep the beach clear of the debris and to protect our property," he said, noting he even hired a consultant in an attempt to gain the authority's attention.

Finch only got the authority's attention when a stop work order halted the wall's construction while it was only 70 per cent complete. In the four years since, the partially finished wall has started to collapse, creating a potential hazard for anyone walking along the beach.

"It is our preference and desire to have Mr. Finch's shoreline protection structure remain in place," Grant Simons, chair of the Beach O' Pines Association, wrote in a letter last October, urging the ABCA to allow the wall to be finished because it would "provide the least amount of disruption to our residents and to the surrounding environment."

Removing wall would have 'negative impact': engineer

Chris Patterson of Patterson Engineering was hired by Finch for a second opinion on the environmental effects of the wall.

Patterson suggested that if it were removed, it would have "significant negative impact" on the nearby bluffs and dunes.

submitted by Ryan Finch
submitted by Ryan Finch

"Removing the wall would also leave the existing bluff and beach dune unprotected, and if water levels were to rise again, the bluff and beach dune could undergo major ongoing erosion like what was experienced in 2019 and 2020," he wrote.

"It is important to have shoreline protection in place to limit the erosion and washout."

Authority says it applies enforcement 'consistently'

The conservation authority said the Finch family is not being targeted because of their station. Rather, it is because the family built the wall without the proper approvals.

We apply our regulation consistently across our watershed. We're not looking at who the people are or anything like that. - Geoff Cade, water and planning manager, ABCA

"We took a lot of calls about this," said Geoff Cade, water and planning manager of the ABCA, who received what he called a "significant" number of complaints from neighbours worried about the structure.

"We apply our regulation consistently across our watershed," said Cade. "We're not looking at who the people are or anything like that. It's — if you've offended the Conservation Authorities Act and we can't find common ground to fix things, we follow what the conservation act allows us to do."

Google Meetings
Google Meetings

There are two concerns, said Cade. The first is that people couldn't get around the structure during high water, which Cade admits isn't his jurisdiction. The second is a perennial worry among beachfront property owners — that any new retaining wall, if built incorrectly, could erode the shoreline along neighbours' properties down current from where it was built.

"If they're not installed correctly with regard to shoreline processes, they can cause a negative impact and certainly landowners in the area were concerned about that," said Cade.

What environmental regulators don't like about the wall is they believe it causes a phenomenon called "flanking erosion," which takes place at the end of the wall. When waves hit the wall, the energy is reflected sideways along the shore, causing the shore and the dunes that don't have protection to erode faster.

The contractor who built the Finch family's wall, Richard Webb, of Stewart Webb and Sons Limited, pleaded guilty to five charges under the Ontario Conservation Authority Act in a separate trial on Dec. 8. Webb was fined $13,500 by the court.

In an email to CBC News, Webb, who spends his winters in Costa Rica, said he couldn't comment on the case because he was currently out of the country.

"I would be happy to give my side of the story when I return," he wrote.

The Finch family and the conservation authority appear in a Sarnia court on Jan. 26, when both sides will negotiate a remediation for the wall, if any, and the court could possibly impose a fine.