Nfld. & Labrador

'We made a mistake': Witless Bay deputy mayor owns permit screw-up, denies ulterior motives

Maureen Murphy insists it's all about erosion and doesn't understand the negativity.

Maureen Murphy says concerns are unfounded

Witless Bay Deputy Mayor Maureen Murphy says the town made a mistake in not getting a permit but there was no ulterior motive. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Maureen Murphy doesn't understand the boiling tensions and differences in opinion brewing in Witless Bay since an excavator began work on a beloved beach two weeks ago.

The deputy mayor spoke to CBC News after a council meeting Tuesday evening.

"This has nothing to do with taking the beach, nothing to do with the East Coast Trail, nothing to do with taking Crown lands," she said. "All it has to do [with] is the town taking responsibility for its roads and making sure that nobody travelling down there is injured."

The debate over Ragged Beach has been building for years.

An excavator at Ragged Beach has residents of Witless Bay wondering what exactly the town is planning. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Some townspeople are concerned the beautiful, coastal area will be targeted for development. When an excavator moved onto the beach this month to build a retaining wall, they were convinced it was the start of something else.

Edward Vickers, who runs a community group to protect Ragged Beach, said he feared town council had an ulterior motive. He was concerned the retaining wall project would result in a road moving across the beach to a swath of land that's been the rumoured target of development.

The work was shut down after the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment said the town didn't have a permit for work within 15 metres of a high-ocean watermark.

Edward Vickers runs a group designed to protect Ragged Beach from private development. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Murphy owned up to the permit issue, but said there was nothing sinister about it.

"Yes, we made a mistake. We didn't have our permit because we thought we were outside of the 15-metre [mark]," she said. "We should have made sure we had it. But our heart was in the right place. We were doing the right thing for the right reasons."

Witless Bay has been a hotbed for municipal unrest for several years, and not just over Ragged Beach.

In a 2016 byelection, developer Fraser Paul was chosen as deputy mayor. He was later booted from council, however, when a Supreme Court judge ruled he faked his residency for the election. Two months later, he was acclaimed to a councillor's position when nobody else stepped up to run.

All sides say they don't want a subdivision

The land near Ragged Beach is not zoned residential, but a local resident has been building what he calls a gazebo on the land, further fuelling speculation that a road was being built across the beach and East Coast Trail to connect to the property.

In a CBC News story on Monday, Gary Churchill said the rhetoric around the beach and his building was bordering on harassment.

"We have in fact come across people up in the woods crouched behind trees observing what we are doing down here," he said. "It's very unsettling."

Gary Churchill says he added windows and doors to the structure he calls a gazebo so he could enjoy his property in the cold winter months. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Vickers said his group has spent the last nine years defending Ragged Beach from development, and he'll continue to do so. Churchill maintains he doesn't want to develop the property or see anyone else build a subdivision there.

Murphy, meanwhile, insists there's no plan to do that and doesn't know where the suggestion is coming from.

"If you paid attention to the garbage that's on Facebook and all that other stuff, that's all you might do. But I rise above all that. I came here to do a job as deputy mayor and that's what I'm going to do."

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