There was a time at Sylvan Lake when it was common to see “Private Beach — No Trespassing” signs pounded into the sand by lake-front cottage owners.
And they were adamant enforcing that rule, frequently kicking off lake-goers who dared to walk across their precious, private sand. And the same was also witnessed at Gull Lake and other Central Alberta lakes.
Problem is, some of those owners dwelled on the ignorance of the public — they had no right, nor do they have that right today, to claim any portion of a beach as their property. It’s public land.
Then there are the lake-front cottage owners today who still think they have the right to do whatever they want with beach skirting the front of their property.
Under various provincial and federal laws, anything that lies within what is called “the high-water line” (established when the lake has been at its highest level) is public property.
And tampering with that property, risking serious damage to habitat frequented by birds and fish, by lake-front cottage owners is illegal and must be condemned with all resources open to the courts to get that message home.
Central Alberta lakes are under tremendous pressure these days by developments the size of villages that try to sneak up as close to the shorelines as possible.
One such development bragged about offering such luxuries as a “private beach.” It’s incomprehensible the developers thought they could squeak that one by in their development permit.
Last week, a lake-front property owner at Gull Lake was fined $20,000 for a charge dating back to 2009, when he was caught trying to make his own beach contrary to the Alberta Water Act.
The fine imposed by provincial court Judge Gordon Deck is unacceptable. Crown prosecutor Susan McRory, to her credit, was asking for a $50,000 fine.
The accused, Dale Andrew Mather, 62, who wasn’t in court, had a lawyer asking for a $1,000 fine. The maximum under that act is $50,000 plus two years in the slammer. And it’s in place for a solid reason.
Such reckless abandonment for respect of the environment today demands maximum penalties. And that’s where the courts, our only recourse to get the message across, are failing.
The legal community is not taking abuse of the environment seriously by imposing ridiculous sentences that are neither a deterrent, nor reflect the picture of a natural world in dire straits.
We are killing our environment, our lakes, critical habitat, feeding global warming — and the list goes on.
Deck said the fine, according to a report in the Advocate, must be sufficient to serve as a “warning to other people who might be considering similar activities, and that it must not be so low as to be viewed as a fee.”
But a paltry $20,000 fine against Mather, who has the property for sale and listed at over $2 million, is exactly that — “a fee.”
Further, Deck was even more lenient by ordering the fine to be paid by Sept. 30, or when the property is sold, whichever comes first.
Hardly a harsh message warning others — allowing someone the luxury of seven months to pay a fine.
The courts must get in tune with today’s environmental crisis by imposing harsh penalties that drive home the point these crimes have global-wide ramifications.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.