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Beach goers enjoy the sun at Lakeside Park Beach in St. Catharines on July 17, 2020.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Battles over the beach are brewing across Ontario as municipalities worried about crowding amid a pandemic try to reserve their sand for people living nearby.

Tactics vary, from variable parking prices intended to discourage visitors in Barrie to Wasaga Beach formally designating one area for locals. St. Catharines seems to have gone the furthest, with council voting this week to refuse beach access to anyone not from the Niagara region.

The motion must first be examined by St. Catharines staff and its legality assessed, according to city spokeswoman Maggie Riopelle. As of late Friday afternoon, the rules had not formally been changed and the beaches were going to be open to everyone on the weekend.

Councillor Dawn Dodge, whose motion limiting beach access received overwhelming council support, said the restriction is needed to prevent overcrowding.

“It’s not like we’re trying to be exclusive,” she said. “If I said it’s for local people only, only St. Catharines people, then I think that’s more exclusive. But I mean, we’re opening it up to the whole region.”

If enacted, the restriction would join other rules ruffling the feathers of would-be beach-goers while raising questions of legality and fairness. Some municipal leaders justify restrictions on the basis that locals pay taxes and should get priority, even though small communities are typically subsidized by other levels of government through taxes raised elsewhere.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and former Ontario attorney-general, warns that barring categories of people from public spaces raises serious legal concerns. He said that nothing in provincial legislation allows it, that it could lead to discriminatory enforcement and that it contravenes the freedom of mobility section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“It just defies the idea that we’re all Canadians,” he said, saying that cities routinely provide medical, social and other services to people from regions that don’t have them.

“What it comes down to is we are all in the same boat, and if you want to create your own boat, you don’t get to do that, because you’re not a Vatican City. You’re not your own country, you’re neighbours.”

Asked about the fairness of her motion, Ms. Dodge said it is reasonable for her, as councillor, to ensure her constituents are as safe as possible.

Although the method of enforcement was not specified in her motion, the councillor speculated that security stationed at beach entrances could turn away adults unable to show proof of Niagara residency. She did not expect there would be patrols or ticketing on the beaches themselves.

In Barrie, which has faced its own struggles with beach crowding, Mayor Jeff Lehman said he could understand why some municipalities want to clamp down. He said that his city has lower rates of COVID-19 than some other areas, but said he would be leery about an explicit ban on out-of-towners.

“When you start to get to the level of preventing access or something like that, I think municipalities are treading into very dangerous waters,” he said. “I don’t think it would be an appropriate step.”

The city tried to use parking pricing to keep down visitor numbers at the beaches, a policy Mr. Lehman said proved ineffective. The focus is shifting to trying to educate beach users about safe distancing. The city has also expanded the area where locals can park for free and visitors are charged. The mayor cast this as a bid to recoup costs related to the services visitors are using.

Nearby Ramara Township, on the east side of Lake Simcoe, might eventually move toward a similar parking policy that prioritizes local beach access, Mayor Basil Clarke said.

The community recently shut these sites to everyone over concerns that crowding, garbage and public defecation at beaches were causing serious problems. Mr. Clarke explained that parking areas near these beaches are not fenced or otherwise contained, making it impossible to vet arriving people and distinguish locals from visitors.

“In the future, what we’re going to do is make sure our parking lots have clear boundaries, whether it be a fence or a stone fence, and then we’ll control the parking within that parking lot,” the mayor said.

“If we find at that time that our beaches are full of out-of-towners and our locals can’t use it, we would consider having a special charge for out of town, but it’s too early to say.”

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