Free beach access drops in Niagara as Port Colborne tightens rules

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Where the Great Lakes that border Niagara once offered many free beach access points, more and more of these spaces now include either paid waterfront access or paid parking.

Bay Beach was the first to go, with Fort Erie fencing off the beach in 2019 and charging an access fee. Sunset Beach followed suit this year, albeit less severe as drive-through remains free, when St. Catharines introduced a paid parking system for non-residents.

Cedar Bay Beach was one of the last havens for Niagarans who wanted to spend a day at the beach, but that is coming to an end with Port Colborne charging parking fees to all non-residents. Access to the beach itself remains free.

If you are lucky enough to live in one of the waterfront municipalities, you probably still have free access to your local beaches, but for residents of many Niagara municipalities who would have to travel to a nearby town to hit the beach, free access to public beaches beaches and their parking lots are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

“I feel like Niagara residents are being robbed of beach access. Two Great Lakes and almost no beaches,” said Tess Sotirakos. “Some of the beaches allow free access to locals in this town, but if you don’t live there, shell out a lot of money to park.”

For people like Sotirakos, who lives in beachless Welland but frequently uses Port Colborne’s beaches, finding free beach access in Niagara is nearly impossible.

Some of the beach access systems are more forgiving than others. In Fort Erie, local residents can obtain a beach pass that grants access to Bay Beach. The simple beach access card can easily be loaned to a friend or family member from a neighboring municipality, granting them free access to the beach for a weekend of fun on the sand.

But in Port Colborne, councilors insisted on a stricter system specifically designed to stamp out any attempt to lend beach passes to friends or family in other parts of Niagara. The city originally planned to use the same beach pass system as Fort Erie, but councilors pushed back against that plan when it was presented at City Hall on April 26.

“You could give (the beach pass) to a friend or scalp it. I’m concerned that this could lead to abuse,” Ward told 3 Coun. Gary Bruno, who insisted that bathers also provide proof that they have a local address. “For it to be just an honor system, you’re blowing it if you don’t have to pull out an ID.”

With all of the major beaches locked behind a paywall, the only free waterfront left in Niagara is the many public road rights-of-way that end in the water, creating miniature beaches 66 feet wide. But without proper beach amenities, these are also impractical options for foreigners.

“As for the small beaches at the end of the roads, well, they present a problem, because there are no bathrooms,” said Sotirakos, who noted that the very limited supply of places to Parking on right-of-way beaches can also make those difficult to access unless you want to bet on a parking ticket.

“Wainfleet public road access is my favorite as parking is free, although could use more parking spaces,” Sotirakos said. “If you dare park on Lakeshore Road and end up with a ticket, it’s steep.”

Port Colborne is expected to unveil the exact details of its beach access system, including how to register for a pass (available to local residents only), this week.

UPDATE – May 4, 2021: This story has been updated to clarify that while access to Cedar Bay Beach remains free, parking fees will be charged to visitors from outside Port Colborne.


STORY BEHIND THE STORY: This week, the Port Colborne Chief looked at the financial impact on residents caused by Niagara municipalities restricting free beach access.

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