Volunteers say no to running North Hatley beach after more than 50 years

For more than fifty years, volunteers with the North Hatley Recreation Society in the Eastern Townships have been running the waterfront in the summertime on the shores of Lake Massawippi — until now.

Dispute over town's plan to change seasonal fees, fence beach angers recreation society

Mathieu Devinat, president of the North Hatley Recreation Society, said it's unrealistic for the NHRS to run the beach this summer under the new rules imposed by the municipality. The society has operated the beach for more than half a century. (Jean Arel/Radio-Canada)

For more than fifty years, volunteers with the North Hatley Recreation Society (NHRS) have been running the waterfront in the summertime on the shores of Lake Massawippi — overseeing the beach and access to tennis courts and sail boats.  

For a fee, certified instructors hired by NHRS also offer swimming, tennis and sailing lessons.

But the town's recent announcement that it will increase the fees for non-residents and fence off  the beach at night have the society's volunteers up in arms.

They worry the municipality's changes will make the beach unaffordable for some and jeopardize the safety of late-night swimmers who will inevitably climb the fence.

The NHRS now says under the circumstances, its volunteers will not run the beach this summer.

Concern for low-income out-of-towners

Until this year, the cost of seasonal beach access has been $120 per family of four and $200 for non-residents.

A daily pass was $5 for adults and $2 for children.  

The municipal council now plans to make the beach free for North Hatley residents, increasing the family rate for non-residents to $300 for the season, to make up the difference.

But NHRS president Mathieu Devinat says that drastic hike isn't fair to many beach goers, including the society's own volunteers — many of whom are non-residents.

"Low-income families in the region who should be benefiting from our services will most certainly decide not to buy a pass," said Devinat.
The beach in North Hatley has been run by volunteers with the North Hatley Recreaction Society for more than fifty years. (Radio-Canada)

When the cost of a season pass went up a few years ago from $120 to $200, fewer families registered, he said.

Devinat estimates between the free pass for residents and the loss of non-residents, the NHRS stands to lose $8,000 to $10,000 in revenues this summer.

Fairer to local taxpayers, mayor says

User fees don't cover equipment, maintenance and wages.

The municipality has been picking up about $12,000 in annual costs, and NHRS volunteers raise another $4,500 through fundraising activities.

The municipality also wants to extend the beach's opening hours from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., which Devinat said will be another added cost of several thousand dollars because the NHRS's three employees will have to work longer hours.  

"Both these conditions are unacceptable because we are a non-profit organization," said Devinat. He said the town has not offered any additional money to compensate.

"We have a balanced budget," said Devinat, "but what's ahead is a direct loss of revenue."

The mayor of North Hatley, Michael Page, disagrees.

Page said local residents already pay taxes for use of the beach, and he doesn't believe raising the prices for non-residents will deter them from buying season passes.

"It's already really cheap. We're still working out the final numbers, but we're not talking about doubling the price," he said.

Page said residents of neighbouring Hatley Township will also be reimbursed the added fee by their municipality.

Fencing off the beach

Devinat also thinks it's a mistake for the town to fence off the beach after hours.

"A beach is attractive, even if gates are closed, you must expect people will try to reach it by other means," he said, "if there is an incident access by ambulance would be hindered."

However, Page said he's spoken with the local fire chief about that issue, and he doesn't believe fencing the beach off would make it unsafe.

"They've got cutters right on the fire truck," he said.

"They can get through that little chain that locks it up in a matter of seconds, it's not what's going to keep them out."  

Page explained closing the beach to the public at night is a question of liability. He recalled an incident two summers ago in which an access gate had been left open, and a preschooler was seen playing at the beach without supervision.

Uncertainty for coming season

Page said the municipality was not planning on managing the beach this summer but has had no choice but to take it over since NHRS pulled out.  

"We came back to the table three times," he said of attempts to find a resolution to the impasse.

Page said the beach will be open this summer and services will be provided.

But Devinat isn't convinced the municipality will be able to offer as many activities as his group did in the past.

Devinat said the NHRS, with its long history, is important to the town, and people have been voicing their discontent on social media about about the organization being slighted.

A petition is circulating in North Hatley in favour of creating a committee to find a solution to the impasse.  

Local residents are also being encouraged to voice their concerns at a town council meeting on May 7.

With files from Quebec AM and Radio-Canada