North Hatley residents rebel against locked gate at beach

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North Hatley residents rebel against locked gate at beach

Naisi LeBaron came home from a town hall meeting in North Hatley, Que., last May feeling frustrated, so she grabbed her brushes and got to work.

"Some people write letters in frustration, some people stand up at council meeting in frustration, and I paint," LeBaron said.

The result is a painting she calls Temperatures Rising, which she says describes the mood of her fellow residents after the town council's decision last spring to lock the gate to the beach on Lake Massawippi whenever there is no lifeguard on duty.

"It changed everybody's kind of rhythm of their life with access to waterfront," she said.

Until this year, the beach was managed by volunteers from a local non-profit, the North Hatley Recreation Society (NHRS). However, the NHRS pulled out after a dispute with the town council over finances.

North Hatley Mayor Michael Page said the town also got legal advice to lock up the beach gate after hours.

"If something happened, would a judge look at us as being negligent because it was there but we didn't use it?"

Changing a way of life

Susan Gwyn has been coming to the beach year-round with her family for decades, to swim in the summer, to ski across the lake in the winter and to put down a blanket in the fall to watch the sun set over the lake.

Gwyn says the beach has been fenced for as long as she can remember, but 40 years ago, that fence was there to keep children on the beach, not off it.

"There was a little wooden fence that the kids leaned on to watch the train," she recalls.

The train is long gone now, and the wooden fence has given way to a chain-link version. However, Gwyn says, that one was installed "so that the children wouldn't run into the parking lot and the cars wouldn't get out of the parking lot and onto the grass area."

The fence is also a way of channeling beach users past the cashier to pay their entrance fee.

The town started locking the gate after lifeguard hours last summer, but it was no big deal to residents, because there was a gap between the end of the fence and the neighbour's hedge, so people just went around the fence.

This summer, the town closed the gap.

It made people like Gwyn furious.

"Why is the town council being so miserable to us?" she asked.

Search for solutions to safety, liability issues

Few issues in North Hatley have created such a stir.

Residents organized a protest, signed a petition and have monopolized the last three council meetings with talk of little else.

"An enormous amount of people have showed up to council meetings, in complete distress about this action of locking the beach," said LeBaron.

The mayor admits the issue has gotten out of hand.

"If somehow someone could propose a solution that would make everyone happy, and keep everyone safe" he said, "then I'd like to find that solution."

"What about taking down the fence?" asks Paul St-Pierre, a longtime North Hatley resident.

St-Pierre doesn't understand how a chain-link fence was allowed in the first place, as they are prohibited in heritage areas of the town.

The beach is not quite in the heritage zone, but St-Pierre argues that the town could make a statement and simply remove the fence on the beach, as well as the one at the ballpark because "they're ugly."

In the meantime, some people have taken matters into their own hands.

If you scroll back up to Le Baron's painting, you'll see, at the bottom right, a man with a hat holding a stepladder.

That man, François Drouin, is one of the faces of the rebellion in this controversy. In the spring, he took his stepladder and climbed up and over the fence with his son.

"I plan to do this again," he said.

Drouin dismisses the town's reasons for locking up the beach.

He says there will always be some risk surrounding water. LeBaron agrees.

"Life comes with risks, and I think we should be allowed to take some risks," she says, "allowed to go and swim at the beach."