Here’s a rarity: private oceanfront being opened to the public in Greater Victoria. It’s in Colwood, where a new park is being unveiled today as part of the sprawling Royal Bay development.
This comes as a surprise, given that pro-park forces lost a nasty tug-of-war over the property.
It goes all the way back to 1973, before any of the West Shore municipalities were incorporated. The provincial government decided a waterfront park should be built when the Colwood gravel pit — the land now being developed by Royal Bay — eventually closed.
In 2001, with the pit nearing its end, Metchosin sued Colwood in an attempt to force the latter to live up to the order and create such a park, which it argued had been promised by the province on behalf of the whole region. Metchosin lost the case when it was discovered that the province had quietly rescinded its own order. So no park.
Except lo and behold, the 10-acre Beachpark will open today to much fanfare: live music, beach volleyball, kayaking, food trucks and so on from noon to 5.
OK, it’s very much a work in progress, has way more gravel than green right now (which is why it will only be open weekends until more work is done), but you can envision what’s to come. It’s off Metchosin Road, down the hill from the new Royal Bay Secondary School.
It’s also on private land. The developers and Colwood both envision a city-owned park on the site at some point, maybe 10 years down the road as the Royal Bay project takes shape, but in the interim the developers wanted to open some of their 1.4 kilometres of shoreline to the public now. “This is a private park, publicly accessible,” says Royal Bay project director Ben Mycroft.
It sounds like a combination of good citizenship and good marketing. “It’s hard to call yourself a seaside community if you can’t get down to the ocean,” Mycroft says. He talks about future links to neighbouring Esquimalt Lagoon and Albert Head Lagoon.
Again, this is a rarity. When was the last time private waterfront was made public around here? It has been a generation since the Selkirk project grew out of the old Victoria Sawmill site.
Yet the ability to get down to some shoreline matters. Without it, Victorians might as well be in Regina.
Canada isn’t as hard-nosed as some jurisdictions in forcing public access to the ocean. Everything below the normal high-tide mark is — usually — supposed to be public, but that doesn’t mean much if the land between the beach and the street is all private.
And while the province requires beach rights-of-way to be created at the time of subdivision, it’s up to individual municipalities to decide what to do with them. Some places make public access a priority, installing benches and stairs and signs that point to the saltchuck, while others are content to let access exist in theory only.
What the waterfront looks like can vary from community to community, depending on who was making decisions at what time. The Saanich side of the Gorge waterway is one long stretch of park, while the Esquimalt side is dotted with docks and houses. On the Saanich Peninsula you can dig your toes into the kilometre-long expanse of Island View Beach, while in the Uplands a solid wall of mansions separates your lower orders from the waterfront that we assume is on the other side.
In Victoria, the public largely enjoys unobstructed water views from Ross Bay to the breakwater. Farther along, the walkway, stretching from the Blue Bridge to the West Bay marina, was the product of political will, Esquimalt, Victoria and the Provincial Capital Commission working together.
But farther west, much of the beach was locked up by the Department of National Defence and other feds years ago — both sides of Esquimalt Harbour, Fort Rodd Hill, the Albert Head military lands, William Head prison and the Rocky Point ammo depot. The latter is 21Ú2 times the size of Beacon Hill Park.
It can take a concerted effort to keep the shoreline easily accessible. After safety fears prompted the Capital Regional District to close the stairs down to Witty’s Lagoon park, the municipality of Metchosin agreed to shoulder the liability risk and join the CRD in rebuilding the access. The new stairs should be open to the public this fall.