Witless Bay resident says Ragged Beach scrutiny has become harassment

On a warm, mellow night in Witless Bay, the Churchills sit outside their wooden gazebo to watch puffins splash around and gannets plunge for fish. 

In addition to watching the wildlife, the couple also watch for people. 

"We have in fact come across people up in the woods crouched behind trees observing what we are doing down here," said Gary Churchill.

"It's very unsettling."

The couple's property and the gazebo they built on it has come under intense scrutiny after protesters stopped the Town of Witless Bay from building an erosion wall on Ragged Beach. 

Some local residents fear the construction of the erosion wall marks the beginning of a road that will lead across the beach, along the East Coast Trail into the Churchills' property. 

Meg Roberts/CBC

But Churchill said that concern has become harassment over their gazebo, which he said has nothing to do with the wall.

He says he has been called the "devil's spawn," was told he should have been "drowned at birth," and he has seen comments online about burning down his shelter, to which he's added windows and a door so he can use it in the winter.

I bought this land and it's my right to live here. - Gary Churchill

"I just want to be left alone," he said.

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Churchill said people stood outside his property to take pictures and yell insults at him and his wife while he was building the gazebo, which is about seven metres long by 3½ metres wide.

"I have fairly thick skin. It's more about my family and my wife in particular — if she is up here by herself. I don't know if it is all talk, but it's some pretty harsh things."

Churchill said they plan to file a complaint with the RCMP. He said he has tried to talk to residents to correct some of what he says is false information, but doesn't think he's being taken seriously because he's not originally from Witless Bay, although he was born in Newfoundland.

"It shouldn't matter if I am from India, Japan or whatever. I bought this land and it's my right to live here." 

No road planned on beach

Churchill said when he heard residents feared he was building a road along the beach up into the property, he thought it was a joke.

"We wouldn't want one. We want to keep this as natural as possible," he said, adding he had no clue the town was building an erosion wall. The town has signed off on a permit for a gazebo, which is taped to the Churchills' fence. But some critics say the permit for the gazebo does not match the structure that is currently on the property, and think town council should intervene.

The erosion wall is now being looked into by the provincial government after the town failed to submit permits for the project. 

Meg Roberts/CBC

Lisa Dempster, minister of the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment, said her staff is working with the town officials to make them better aware of the policies. 

"The town indicated they would be making an application to apply for a permit. We will do due diligence on processing the permits and we will go from there," she said. "I want to have a good look at what they want to do.… We will issue the permit accordingly."

Meg Roberts/CBC

When asked about what sort of penalties exist for doing work without a permit, the minister said it would be "premature to speculate or comment on that."

"That is not where we are right now. We asked for them to stop the work, they did that."

Dempster said in all communities across the province she wants to see open, effective local government but acknowledges often in smaller towns there are not as many resources or willing volunteers. 

"We have a role to play to support those town councillors, the mayors."


Years of controversy

About nine years ago, the Churchills were on a backpacking trip and fell in love with Ragged Beach while walking the East Coast Trail. Wanting to move back to the province after living in Ottawa, they were looking for something to buy. 

As luck would have it, Churchill said, a woman in her 80s went to town hall carrying a shoebox with all her deeds, wanting to sell her property.

The couple cashed in their RRSPs to buy the property.

Meg Roberts/CBC

The Churchills originally wanted to build a small house but because there was no road access to the property, they were not able to get a permit for it.

Churchill said the previous town council told them they would have to pay for a subdivision-grade road that came in behind their property. That road would allow access for others to build homes nearby.

However, Churchill said, the new council revoked the application. 

"From my point of view, that was a good thing because I never could have afforded to put in the subdivision anyways."

"[Locals] don't want the subdivision. Neither do we."

Edward Vickers runs Friends of Ragged Beach, a non-profit society with the goal of protecting the beach from private development. He says Churchill doesn't like the questions being asked to him by local residents and therefore feels like he is being harassed. 

"We have to compare credibility here," said Vickers.

Upset with the lack of public consultation, Vickers wants the town council to be more open and transparent about what its plans are for Ragged Beach.

Vickers says the structure the Churchills built does not match the permit they were given for the property and wants to see it come down.

"I intend to get it taken out of there," he said.

"We are playing by the rules. Myself and other people have managed to delay any development in there for nine years because we are following the rules."

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