Midland residents save waterfront ‘hidden gem’ for one more year

Raising awareness can be a good thing or a bad thing, as some Midland residents may have discovered.

A small parcel of land at 349 Lakewood Drive, just 0.44 acres and designated as open space by the town, was added in a recent staff report for consideration as one of four surplus land opportunities for the town's needs, which could potentially be sold for revenue.

The plot of land is nestled on Georgian Bay within Midland Point, and was used by locals for years as a hidden gem to access the waterfront at their leisure.

Midland council was facing a harsh budget increase for 2023, and with a council elected on fiscal responsibility through issues such as the waiving of most municipal downtown lot parking and a pause on a multi-million dollar waterfront project – since withdrawn by developers – it was up to council and staff to find ways to inject revenue into the town coffers.

No market valuation was conducted for 349 Lakewood Dr., and a legal opinion review found there was no deeded access either by easement or right of way to the water through the property registered on any reviewed parcels.

Many townsfolk attended the recent committee of the whole meeting, armed with a 400-person petition and the passion to keep 349 Lakewood Dr. out of the hands of developers.

One of the signatories was former Coun. Cody Oschefski, who campaigned for deputy mayor last fall in favour of lowering municipal taxes and moving ahead with the Midland Bay Landing development project.

In his hope council "would protect the Lakewood Dr. site and not allow development, Oschefski asked others on his Facebook page to sign the petition to "help us protect our environment and give the message to council that we can't lose any more public access to Georgian Bay.

"This site has been deemed a Natural Heritage site and has also been identified as a highly vulnerable aquifer," Oschefski wrote, adding this is a place his family enjoys visiting since they live nearby.

"This has been used and maintained by the area residents for decades," he wrote. "Access to outdoor playspace is critical to a child's development and a human's mental health in general. We are asking that this be deemed a park for public use and not sold for short term gain."

Council supported the defeated motion and stopped the property from being put up for surplus, each sharing their reasons. Coun. Jim Downer and Sheldon East both agreed that waterfront access to Georgian Bay was limited. Deputy Mayor Jack Contin echoed the need for access, citing a balance between land development and public usage of natural landscape.

Coun. Jamie-Lee Ball pointed out that a community request to turn the open space into parkland would require additional costs for waste removal and town maintenance.

"If we designate it a park, we're costing taxpayers money; if we leave it as open space, we don't have to sell it but it still continues to be of use the way it's suppose to be and the way that it is being used right now. It also doesn't protect it from being for sale later," Ball added.

Mayor Bill Gordon addressed his discovery of the property last term.

"My wife and I found this little plot of land, found a place to park, and went for a swim. It was pebbly, gravelly kind of beach, the water was beautiful, and it was a good time," shared Gordon. "I can understand why the residents are so concerned about keeping that access to Georgian Bay, because it is beautiful."

However, Gordon reminded the public about the cost of removing it as surplus.

"There's an opportunity to sell this property potentially get $400,000 for it, which is almost a two per cent impact on the tax rate," noted Gordon.

"I need you to understand... what we're doing here is consciously -- on all the taxpayers of Midland – foregoing an opportunity to bring in a very material amount of money to this organization that we don't bring in from other sources. Because we've also opted to forego income from other streams – for example, parking."

Coun. Bill Meridis called the property "a hidden gem" and urged the community to form a buy-in group to bid on the land, but was cautioned by Gordon that in an auction, even a $1 bid higher by a rival developer wouldn't secure the land for that potential group.

Pointing out issues of liability, Coun. Roberta Bald raised concern that the public using the open space could sue the town for accidents and that increased awareness and visitation only increased that possibility.

Gordon quickly agreed, and acting CAO and executive director of environment and infrastructure Andy Campbell pointed out that discussions regarding insurance would need to happen as staff awareness to increased public use of the property was involved, and that a minimum to not face liability would be to put up signs of caution on the property.

Campbell also noted that the 2019 Midland Parks and Trails Master Plan stated in its key findings that there was an excess supply of parkland, "and the town could take advantage of an opportunity to dispose of property and possibly make some revenue."

With council defeating 349 Lakewood Drive on the surplus for this year's agenda, the gallery emptied.

Approved for surplus were: an old operations depot at 731 Ontario St., zoned institutional at 3.07 acres and valued at $1.8 million in 2021; an old parks depot at 67 Fourth St. on contaminated lands, zoned institutional at 1.63 acres and valued at $1.26 million in 2021; and 415 William Street, zoned open space at 1.75 acres with no market valuation.

The surplus land report, including 349 Lakewood Drive, can be found in the council agenda on the Town of Midland website.

Council meetings are held every third Wednesday, and can be attended virtually through Zoom by contacting the clerk’s department of Midland town hall for a link to the meeting.

Council meetings can also be viewed on Rogers TV cable channel 53, or through the livestream on the Rogers TV website. Archives of council meetings are available through Rogers TV and on the Town of Midland’s YouTube channel.

Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca