A Ticking Time Bomb, a Festering Sore in Gatineau Park
As Chelsea’s municipal council weighs whether to allow construction of a two-story building only a few metres from the water at 774 Meech Lake Road, I thought I’d take a little trip down memory lane to recall what US Parks Director Newton B. Drury said about the damage private properties do to public parks.
“Private inholdings in national parks,” he wrote, “are potential time bombs that can impact the resources, visitors and integrity of an affected park unit.” (“Private In-Holdings in National Park System," Land and Policy Review, Fall 1946.) Mr. Drury also believed that “the problem they create is one of the most serious facing the National Park Service.”
The US Parks Service has long held this enlightened view and dedicated itself to achieving it. In 1968, Mr. Drury’s successor, George Hartzog, gave a detailed explanation of the problem when he testified before a congressional committee. Private lands, he argued, harm national parks in three ways: 1) they destroy the environment; 2) undermine public access and the visitor experience; 3) and divert public funds from park conservation to administering improper use.
In most of its policies on Gatineau Park, the National Capital Commission (NCC) says very much the same thing, highlighting in every master plan its commitment to rid the park of private property. However, the general spinelessness of its leadership has yielded miserable results in this regard. Also key factors in this equation: the uselessness of local members of Parliament and federal ministers in general, and the craven mediocrity of local media.
Mr. Hartzog also debunked the myth that the small proportion of private properties inside national parks isn’t really harmful to the environment—an argument the NCC uses all the time to sweep the issue under the rug. The overall proportion of private lands might seem insignificant, said Hartzog, “but like the worm in the apple, these ‘inholdings’ [...] often have a devastating effect upon the natural integrity of a park.” They do this, he said, because they “tend to cluster around the prime scenic attractions of the parks, or along natural access routes, where they are seen by millions of visitors.”
The most recent example of the NCC using this specious argument came last August, when it sent press lines to CBC Ottawa regarding news of the municipality of Pontiac’s plans to allow more construction inside Gatineau Park: “Today, there are 338 properties left covering only 361 hectares inside the perimeters [sic] of the park. The remaining private lands represent less than two per cent of the total area of Gatineau Park.” And CBC Ottawa swallowed the swindle, hook, line and sinker...
Never mind that about 40% of all visits to the park are concentrated at Meech Lake (Gatineau Park Conservation Plan 2010, p. 165), where the NCC has allowed construction of 11 new houses since 2006... in “a prime scenic attraction...” Never mind that 132 new houses have been built inside Gatineau Park since 1992, or that the NCC failed to purchase the dozen houses that were sold in the Meech Lake and Kingsmere sectors between 2006 and 2016—in violation of its own master plan commitments and a Treasury Board directive to buy all private lands in the park... Never mind that this inflates the cost of eventual purchase and clearly diverts public funds “from park conservation to administering improper use.” Never mind that Meech Lake residents produce 66% of all phosphorous that’s dumped into the lake, which are the leading cause of blue-green algae(“Capacité d’accueil du lac Meech,” Dryade, ltée, October 1989, p. 17). Never mind that Meech Lake beaches were closed in 2007 and 2009 due to the spread of the toxic blue-green blooms... Never mind all that, because some private property owners are fourth-generation Meech Lake residents, and by Jove are they ever entitled to their entitlements.
Noting that there were about 300,000 acres of private lands in US national parks, national monuments and natural areas, which covered 22 million acres, Hartzog nonetheless described private inholdings as “festering sores in an otherwise unspoiled area belonging to the whole public.”
In Gatineau Park, these sores take the form of residential communities that cluster and fester around such historic/scenic sights: 71 houses at Kingsmere; 82 houses at Meech Lake (The Gatineau Park Story, Katharine Fletcher, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2004, pp. 45-46). So that’s 153 houses crowding a nature park and strangling public infrastructure. One notable example of the damage this rot does was the closing of the Booth Picnic Site at Kingsmere in 1989—to accommodate new residential construction by undermining the visitor experience... And now the municipality of Pontiac will follow suit with its new bylaw to allow housing inside Gatineau Park, which it adopted last September 11.
I guess the most immediate example of a festering sore could be the property at 774 Meech Lake Road, where the owner has asked the municipality of Chelsea for a minor exemption to convert a garage into a two-storey residence. The shed, says the public notice, “is located within the riparian buffer at a distance of 6.67 metres from a creek instead of 15 metres.” Seems really greedy, considering that the main house at that address is about three metres from the water. (Click on the following link to consult the public notice: http://www.chelsea.ca/sites/default/files/avis_public_dm_774_lac-meech_0.pdf.)
So what’s to be done? Rumour is the NCC sent a letter to the municipality of Chelsea expressing its views on this. I’ve made an access request to obtain the letter. Until I get a copy, the March 27, 2018 memorandum of understanding on Gatineau Park between the municipality and the NCC is the only clue I have as to a possible outcome. The purpose of this MOU is to enhance cooperation between both organizations in areas such as planning, recreation and the environment. So, it would be consistent with all its master plans for the NCC to strongly oppose a two-storey brand new construction only a few metres from the water at 774 Meech Lake Road. But, as with so many NCC commitments on Gatineau Park, the MOU may turn out to be completely worthless.
The federal government will likely be introducing legislation to protect Gatineau Park in the coming months. At least that’s what Greg Fergus told one of his constituents in an email last May. Such a bill will have serious repercussions on land-use planning, if it’s any kind of a serious bill. So the municipality should keep this in mind when it denies the owner of 774 Meech Lake Road a minor variance that will have major consequences in the form of shoreline erosion and lake pollution. Unless it’s already approved construction... because the matter was before council on October 2.
Whatever ridiculous arguments private park land owners hatch in support of their continued violation and occupation of a public space can quickly be dispatched to the dust bin by reading US Parks Service Director George Hartzog's testimony before Congress. Below are further excerpts from Mr. Hartzog’s testimony, along with a link to the full document.
“The problem is particularly acute in the Natural Areas of the System where nearly one-third of a million acres remains in private ownership. Ranging in size from 0.2 of an acre in Mount McKinley National Park to more than 69,000 acres of land and semi-submerged land in the Everglades, these pockets of private property are found in 44 of the 66 National Parks and Monuments designated as Natural Areas.
“Compared with the total size of the Natural Areas more than 22,000,000 acres the amount of privately owned land may seem statistically insignificant. But like the worm in the apple, these “inholdings” as we call them, often have a devastating effect upon the natural integrity of a park.
“This is due, in part, to their strategic location. Private inholdings tend to cluster around the prime scenic attractions of the parks, or along natural access routes, where they are seen by millions of visitors.
“Another factor is that the harmful uses to which these pockets of private property are put have impact far beyond their immediate locale.
“As the Izaak Walton League once described them, they often are "festering sores in an otherwise unspoiled area belonging to the whole public."
“There are, I believe, three overriding reasons why private inholdings are incompatible with the basic purpose and function of a National Park and should, therefore, be eliminated.
“First, the wide variety of adverse uses that take place on these private parcels of property are destructive of park values-scenery, wildlife, forest and flowers; in short, the very features that made the area worthy of being a National Park in the first place.
“For example, the owner of an ocean front property in Virgin Islands National Park brought in a bulldozer and began to strip the sand from his beautiful beach to sell it commercially. Another landowner on scenic Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park chopped down the stately pines on his lakeside lot to clear the way for a mobile hot-dog stand.
“On other inholdings in National Parks and Monuments you will find sawmills and lumber yards; shoddy trailer courts and garish souvenir shops; gravel pits and logging operations.
“You also will find power plants and mining operations; gas stations and auto junkyards; garbage dumps and private airports, and last, but not least, proliferating residential subdivisions -- an increasingly serious problem.
“The second basic reason why inholdings are undesirable is the bad impact they have on the park visitor. They spoil his view of the natural scene and demean his esthetic experience with intrusions of a blatantly commercial nature. They deny him access to choice areas of the park, and block the development of new public facilities for his enjoyment and protection.
“For example, the visitor who enters Olympic National Park via the Elwha River Road will be greeted by large signs announcing a trailer campsite development on one side of the road, and by an abandoned gas station adjoining a fenced cattle pasture on the other.
“At Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, a privately owned sliver of lakefront property blocks the development of a badly needed public boat-launching ramp, while elsewhere on the lake 12-foot cyclone fences bar visitors from privately owned sections of beach.
“At Yosemite National Park, a gaping gravel pit on the bank of the Merced River pre-empts a desirable public campground site.
“In the Taylor Slough of Everglades National Park -- a biological resource of enormous significance -- quick-buck operators moved in with bulldozers to create primitive roads so they can peddle "waterfront" lots. Farther north, in the labyrinth country of the park, similar real estate promotions threaten the proposed Inland Wilderness Waterway from Flamingo to the Ten Thousand Islands area. The potential damage from these activities to the fragile ecology of the Everglades is incalculable.
“A third urgent reason for eliminating private inholdings from the parks is that money and manpower, needed for the basic job of protecting and preserving the parks and serving the visitors, must be diverted to deal with the administrative problems created by adverse uses of property.
“This is especially acute where large residential subdivisions exist within parks, as at Kings Canyon, Glacier, and Yosemite.
“Park superintendents suddenly find themselves confronted with most of the problems facing a professional municipal executive-law enforcement, fire protection, zoning and construction, sewage and garbage disposal, traffic control, inspection of food handlers and regulation of a variety of commercial activities.
“The ever-increasing adverse use of private lands, coupled with the increasing popularity of the parks, is intensified by the growth of population and the economic development of the country. This makes the inholding problem one of the most serious facing the National Park Service today.
“And the situation can only get worse with time because the cost of acquiring these properties continues to escalate as the demand for desirable recreational land grows ever more fierce.
“The estimated cost of acquiring all the private inholdings in the Natural Areas of the Park System is now $114,000,000 compared with $59,000,000 in 1961 an increase of 93 percent in six years. And this is a conservative estimate.
“These and other examples I could cite point to one inescapable conclusion: We must take action now on an orderly, sustained basis to acquire these private inholdings that are causing an alarming erosion of natural values in our National Parks.”
Mr. Hartzog’s full testimony may be consulted in George B. Hartzog, THE NATIONAL PARKS, 1965. An Interview Conducted by Amelia R. Fry, (the above excerpts are taken from the Appendix, p.72). http://www.archive.org/stream/nationalparks00hartrich/nationalparks00hartrich_djvu.txt