Own waterfront? Prove it


February 19, 2020


By Nikki Mantell 

Some came with property deeds in hand, some with their own maps, but every audience member of Chelsea's packed information session to address the municipality's purchase of Hydro-Québec shoreline came with questions about this controversial move to open up more access to the Gatineau River. 

So crowded was the Feb. 17 meeting in an upstairs room of the Meredith Centre, Mayor Caryl Green announced that at roughly 150 people, the hall was beyond capacity, and some chose to leave. Several tables displayed enlarged maps that showed sections of land along the Gatineau River and the areas the municipality intended to purchase. She asked the crowd to leave the seats around the tables to those who own waterfront property identified in each map, and those not directly affected to stand along the walls. 

Chelsea's plan to purchase 14 lots from Hydro-Québec for $47,426, most underwater, is causing confusion and questions for many living on or near the waterfront, as the issue of who owns what is not always clear. Many in the audience could be heard saying their waterfront is included with their deed after a previous owner purchased the land from Hydro's predecessor, Gatineau Power, many years ago. Some, however, are discovering that what they thought was theirs shows up on the map as owned by Hydro-Québec. The municipality sent out a letter prior to the meeting acknowledging some residents are discovering their parcels of land do not appear on the Quebec cadastre, and that the responsibility of proving any error lies with the residents. 

Green assured the audience the municipality was “not looking to infringe on the rights of private landowners” and repeated the message that “the goal is really to give river access to residents who are users of the community trail” that is to be built along the river. Chelsea plans to go ahead with the purchase from Hydro-Québec, but she said those residents with properties that abut the river would be given the opportunity to buy back small stretches – mostly underwater land – from the municipality “at a nominal fee.” Each property will be treated on a “case-by-case basis.” 

Chelsea's goal, Green told the audience, was to create three or four public access points along the community trail to the river, for picnic tables and boat launches – as opposed to a municipal dock with lifeguards – and to do so Chelsea had to buy all 47 acres from Hydro-Quebec to acquire the few above-water shoreline lots as the utility company would not sell the land piecemeal. Questions were pointed but civilized during the public discussion, but the sentiment that the municipality was unfairly dumping the costs of sorting out legal ownership on the backs of the property owners came up again and again. 

“Why is it our burden [to prove ownership]?” asked Yves Ménard, which was met by a round of applause. While Green estimated notary and surveyor fees would come to about $2,000, another audience member citing recent experience put that number at $4,000. 

Director general David McFaul said the legal principle is that when it comes to ownership, if someone argues a conflicting issue, it is their responsibility to prove it. John Pomeroy argued that if the municipality had originally budgeted more than $200,000 for the Hydro-Quebec purchase, it should use those funds to help offset the financial burden being placed on riverfront residents. 

Louise Killens pointed out that waterfront owners already pay a premium through their higher property taxes, and now some are being asked to buy underwater property on top of that. “It's a hard pill to swallow,” she said. “We have to pay something we've had for a long time.” 

Green admitted that the community trail is forcing change, including the way waterfront owners enjoy their own property. “Yes, we are shifting that parameter... but we are looking at ways that are fair [to both the owners and those who want to use the waterfront].” 

Questions about toilets, parking, policing and deeded water access for those not directly on the river also came up, but Green told audience members to hold those for the next meeting, which she promised would be a public consultation on public river access and docks, to be held at a later date.