ImPort Stanley is weekly series about life and discoveries as a recent “import” to Port Stanley, ON.
If you’ve visited Little Beach, you might wonder why a large tract of land a parking lot away is just sort of sitting there. They’ve put in place some picnic areas made of boulders. Currently, the 23-acre patch is partly a photographer tripod platform, dog exercise area, and goose toilet. There are well-worn footpaths around the perimeter. On the water’s edge, it seems ripe for development. But its history offers clues into why that hasn’t happened yet and perhaps shouldn’t happen at all.
This piece of real estate offers a million-dollar view of the lake. Building on it would no doubt get in the way of other valuable views. Especially those level with the harbor, on the other side of King George bridge. (I’ll tell you about some plans for over there another time.) It would be a sweet place to live if you love watching the boats come and go. You’d have a front-row seat for pleasure craft, fishing trawlers, and the massive freighters out in the lake.
The nearby Jackson fisheries building sold last year to a London developer who plans to incorporate the structure into a new 14-condo and retail building. The developer told The London Free Press that at $1.7-million it cost more than he wanted to pay, but it’s almost impossible to find waterfront property anymore. If his structure blocks the water for others, well, that’s the way of the water world.*
I haven’t followed Port Stanley politics closely over the years but it appears that any growth has been carefully weighed and measured, The berm is the last public greenspace on Lake Erie. It’s no wonder that many locals want it to stay that way. It would be great to keep it available for people to take a stroll. Maybe grab a bite to eat. And not cut it off to the public due to privatization. There’s only so much waterfront and I, for one, don’t enjoy having to park my butt in the sand just to see it.
So, you might wonder why it’s taking so long for something – whatever it is – to happen on the berm. Turns out, that prime-looking piece of land is actually a brownfield. Down deep, the soil was contaminated with coal dust, petroleum byproducts. and other mechanical juices. The berm isn’t part of the natural landscape. It was man-made, largely from dredging the harbor. Coal producers created it a hundred years ago when coal was all the rage and Port Stanley was running out of room to store it. Since then, it’s been added to and further tainted by other industrial uses. All of this dates back to a time when environmental regulations were awfully loosey-goosey.
The Municipality of Central Elgin took over ownership of the berm from Transport Canada in 2010. Where the feds always balk at spending significant money on any one town, Central Elgin knows Port Stanley is an important gem. When the two levels of government had a disagreement over who would pay to cover the berm with tons of clean fill, CE stepped up. That was more than a decade ago. As a result, the junk in the berm is now contained and too deep for anyone to come into contact with it. This is how we fix the messes of yesteryear. We do the best we can.
What’s Next for the Berm?
What to do with that land has been bandied about for years. Photographers love to visit and use the berm as a perfect spot for taking lake photos. When the weather turns and the waves get high, photogs dot the berm’s edge like a fringe. We have picnicked on the boulder tables with legendary Mackie’s perch, fries and Orangeade and it’s kind of fun. When we were there in the summer, the goose guano was mainly contained to an area far enough away from the eating spaces to make it inconsequential. It’s a large, open area where active dogs can run themselves down and give their owners a quiet day of doggie naps. There’s no other piece of real estate like it on this great lake.
Many others see only dollar signs along the lakeshore. They hope to erect apartments, condos, retail, what have you on the berm. Port Stanley is continuing with plans to expand its reputation as a tourism hotspot. The last info I can find shows the berm is likely going to get some residential and retail buildings. How much is still in question. An official plan promises to maintain 70% public access. We’ll see. It would be mighty attractive to live on, with some of the village’s best shopping and restaurants just steps away.
Local council has done a wonderful job with Port Stanley. They’ve made the harbor an inviting place. Improvements continue all the time. But building on a site isn’t always the same as improving it. Depending on what specific plans come forward, I may have to stick my nose into local affairs. After all, this is my town now, too. The Municipality has been taking public input as they consider how the area should be developed.
If you want to know more about this berm in great detail, former Central Elgin councillor Dan McNeil has written a four-part series on it. (Much of the above history of the berm is thanks to his articles.) He also explores the myths and facts, as some locals believe the berm began life as a park. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. You can read the series HERE.
Next time you circle the roundabout on your way to Little Beach, take note of the size of the berm, and give a thought to what it would look like if we weren’t allowed to use it. Even just to stop for a moment and capture another gorgeous Port Stanley sunrise.
*UPDATE: The Jackson’s building has changed hands again. Domus Developments and Wasko Developments of London purchased it and plans to put retail stores inside. Across the harbour, Domus and other partners also purchased the long, former Dominion of Canada building. They aim to open a microbrewery and restaurant there.