Residents of Normandale, a lakeside village in Norfolk County, were shocked to learn last week that their beach was for sale.
The province declared the small beach and adjoining lands near Lake Erie surplus, and the 1.8-acre property was listed on Realtor.ca for the tidy sum of $300,000.
“It’s ridiculous,” villager Stephen Nunn said of the proposed sale. “We’re all very frustrated. We found out by finding the listing. There was no public consultation.”
Kat Dicks said she and her family were “baffled” by the news.
“This a public beach that is not just used by our residents, but we have people from all the way up to the GTA who come to experience the beach and fish off the pier,” Dicks said.
For decades, Marjorie Kozak has made a walk on the beach part of her daily routine.
“I was in fighting mood right away,” she said. “I hope we can persuade them not to sell it. It was given to us, so why should they take it back? I think that’s a dirty trick.”
Residents flooded Conservative MPP Toby Barrett’s office with calls and emails protesting the potential loss of the beach, along with the Normandale Furnace, a national historic site that commemorates a 19th century foundry, one of Norfolk’s first industries.
Within a few days, after Barrett intervened with the relevant ministers, the listing was pulled.
On Saturday, just about the whole village gathered on the beach to drive home the point to Barrett and Mayor Kristal Chopp that they want the area to remain public.
“We want you guys to work together, and we need you to move forward,” said Laurie Sebok, who said Normandale’s “charming” and “peaceful” beach “brings us much joy.”
The beach — which doubles as the community’s fitness centre, gathering place and summertime movie theatre — is also a tourist draw that supports local businesses, she added.
While villagers are “relieved” the listing was pulled, Sebok told elected officials they need more assurances.
“We really can’t feel at ease until it’s not listed and available for purchase anymore,” she said. “We are counting on you to keep our beach public, so please don’t let us down.”
The politicians got the message, which was underscored by dozens of signs held by residents and posted around the village.
“I share your sentiments,” Barrett told the crowd, saying he “went to war with cabinet ministers and the premier’s office” to get the listing “paused” and allow for more negotiations between Queen’s Park and the county.
“I’m adamant that it remains in public hands,” he said.
Which public hands is the question. Barrett said ideally the county — which has maintained the property for more than 10 years — should own the beach.
Chopp said that would be fine, if the province stops trying to gouge taxpayers on the price.
“For the ministry, probably the best thing is to sell it to the county for two dollars, and we’ll continue to maintain it for public purposes,” Chopp said.
The Ministry of Natural Resources declared the waterfront property surplus in 2008, after flooding had wiped out several buildings.
During what ward councillor Chris Van Paassen described as “13 years of bureaucratic shuffling,” the file moved from MNR to Infrastructure Ontario, which set the sale price for the county as $220,000 — based on an in-house appraisal Chopp said the ministry won’t let Norfolk council see — plus an additional $20,000 for a site survey.
The county had the land appraised at $25,000.
The discrepancy exists because the province contends a house could be built on the northern end of the property, but the county’s planning department says it would not issue a building permit for the lot, citing size restrictions and environmental factors.
Chopp criticized the province for putting waterfront property up for sale in the first place.
“Why is this a battle that we’re even having — that local taxpayers should have to shell out to buy their public beach in the year 2021?” she said. “Governments around the world do not sell public access to waterfront. They fight to protect it.”
Barrett said his preference would be for Norfolk County to buy the beach, noting that county council “expressed interest” in buying the property 13 years ago, but withdrew that interest earlier this year when given an exclusive window to purchase the land.
“You knew what would happen if you walked away in January, and here we are,” Barrett told Chopp. “It’s listed at fair market value, and that’s the legislation.”
Residents agree the county would be the ideal landowner.
“The county has done an amazing job of taking care of it, so I would love it if the province were to hand it over to the county for a price that the county can afford,” Dicks said.
Van Paassen said the province’s asking price did not take into account roughly $50,000 Norfolk has spent on property maintenance.
“One way or another, we’re going to keep this as a public beach,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how we get there.”
The pandemic gave Normandale residents a preview of what life would be like without access to their beach, and Dicks said they do not want a repeat.
“We felt that loss as a community,” she said.
“If we lose that beach, we’ll lose the heart of this village.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator