British Columbia

Unblock access to public waterway, groups tell local council

Dozens of public paths are blocked or hidden along Victoria's Gorge waterway, a University of Victoria-supported study finds.

87 paths are obstructed or obscured by private owners along Victoria's Gorge waterway, study finds

On one Esquimalt street, a survey found waterfront access appeared to be blocked by a carport and potted plants further down the path. Elsewhere, a solid hedge and a construction fence stretched across paths. (University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre)

A Victoria community group says public access to a popular local waterway is being blocked by homeowners and private landowners.

A survey by the Veins of Life Watershed Society and the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre identified about 87 public access points to the Gorge waterway that have been blocked, encroached upon or obscured from view.

Calvin Sandborn, the legal director for the law centre, said in some cases "private" and "keep out" signs have been posted on public land near the Gorge, a tidal inlet that extends seven kilometres through the municipalities of Victoria, Saanich and Esquimalt.

Researchers found an Esquimalt public access path "blocked by the shrubbery, topsoil, wheelbarrow and bins that appear to be part of a garden extension." (University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre)

"The problems that we're seeing is that public land going down to the water is often being privatized by adjacent landowners," Sandborn said.

Subdivisions in the region require public access to the waterfront  every 200 metres, as well as at the ends of roads close to the water, he said.

Treated like private property

"Frequently what happens is the property owners take over that land and they build carports on it or they build patios or fence it off and put in gardens or put in their composting bins. And basically treat it like private property. "

The two groups recently presented the findings of their survey to the District of Saanich council, along with a call for action to notify landowners and start making the public entry points clear.

What we're trying to do is get these pocket parks opened back up," said John Roe, founder of the Veins of Life Watershed Society.

A trash bin and private garden occupy a public path in Esquimalt. Veins of Life Society members say they have been unsuccessfully raising concerns about blocked access to The Gorge waterway for years. (University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre)

The 1.7-kilometre Gorge Waterway Park exists on the Saanich side of the Gorge and is popular with dog walkers, joggers and kayakers. However, Roe said, there should be more access.

"Our support comes from not so much the waterfront owner, but the person that is one block over that wants to be able to come over on a nice warm day and put their kayaks in, do their thing, and maybe go for a little swim."

In a written statement, the District of Saanich said it has referred the concerns to its building, bylaw, licensing and legal services department.

With a growing population in the region, Sandborn said more green space will be needed and municipalities have limited money to buy more public parkland.

"At the very least, they can make sure that the existing public lands that they own are actually kept public, that the public's not fenced out of those public green spaces," he said.

With files from Sarah Towle.