Stormy seas over retaining wall in Black Point

Community Featured

A debate on coastal properties and ordinary high-water marks has been sparked in Black Point after a number of complaints to the Department of Resources over a rock retaining wall built to maintain the integrity of a property and prevent erosion.

Property owner Beth Skerrett started the Black Point Beach Preservation Group when she became concerned about a rock retaining wall that was erected with the purpose of preventing further erosion to a property.

“This group is not against erosion protection against waterfront property owners,” said Skerrett. “We are actually in support of erosion protection because if you have erosion protection you don’t have these kinds of issues.”

The preservation group on Facebook has more than 500 members from all over the province as well as a few people from different parts of the world, not all necessarily with a connection to Black Point or James Beach but concerned about coastal access.

The retaining wall in question runs perpendicular out into the water and turns to follow the shoreline to the end of where trailers sit on the property.

The group’s goal is to have the wall removed for people to walk freely through that portion of the sand as Skerrett maintains that the wall is below the ordinary high-water mark, which is the high tide line used to judge where Crown land of a beach begins and runs into the water and where private property begins and runs away from the water.

After lodging a formal complaint, Minister of Lands and Forestry Iain Rankin told Skerrett that this property and rock wall does not fall as a violation to the Crown Lands Act, the Endangered Species Act, as there are Piping Plover nests nearby, and it does not fall under the Beaches Act.

“We are fighting on because we believe the minister and his staff are in the wrong,” said Skerrett. She has also had a recent call with DNR staff and said she was disappointed in their knowledge of the acts that govern Crown lands as well as the fact that a gap in the wall that was created by the retaining wall owners to allow people to pass through in high tide has been considered a compromise by DNR and not something they can make the owners keep open for the public to pass through.

“This is a beach I’ve used for 40 years,” said Skerrett. “I’m very passionate about protecting that access.” She feels the property owners waited too long to put in retaining rocks which is why the erosion happened; she said rocks from the wall have already begun to fall and settle in the sand causing a possible hazard to beachgoers.

“Anyone that owns waterfront property will be watching this issue,” she said. Maryn Lynn is also an advocate for the Black Point Beach group and feels that the wall should be taken down.

“When the rock wall was put in place, many people were upset,” Lynn said. She feels the wall sits below the high water line as well. “I just want to be able to walk down the beach without having to walk through a hole in the wall.”

The property owners in question are sharing their side of the story with The Advocate.

“Most of the other houses are built up higher than the sand bar,” shared Helen Chisholm, who owns the property along with her husband Wayne. The property on the beach as well as where their house stands in Black Point has been in the family for decades and was passed down through generations. When driving into the beachfront property the trailers on the land are sandwiched between an inner body of water and the ocean leaving a thin strip of land that is nearly all sand except for the sod put down by Wayne.

The Chisholms shared their timeline of events that began when a storm began to wash away 50 feet or so of the property in front of their gazebo, so they built a small retaining wall of bricks parallel to the shoreline. As they hadn’t seen erosion as a big issue for their land before there was previously no retaining wall while other cottages had them up already. Helen shared that before they were allowed to create the retaining wall initially it had to be approved by DNR; they were given the approval that the initial wall was above the ordinary high watermark.

The couple shared that after this in the following years another storm went over the rocks and nearly washed out the gazebo and its concrete posts forcing them to move it back further and bolster the retaining wall with more rocks. Another storm swept through and washed out a large chunk of land behind the retaining wall. The gazebo was then moved close to the trailers and after the Chisholms nearly lost the power pole on the property during another storm the perpendicular wall was made to help keep the water from washing out above the initial wall. This spring, the Chisholms then had more rocks put in as a second retaining wall within the first one to save the small amount of flat ground that is left.

“We didn’t imagine that when we put the rocks in that it would all wash out,” said Helen about the initial retaining wall. She first heard about the Black Point beach group when it was called to her attention online. She added that they have no problem if the group wants to change regulations around high water marks and land ownership on the coast but they would rather not be pulled into the matter.

“Regardless of what happens, when you establish that first line, that’s it,” Helen said about what she was told by DNR about the change that has taken place in the high water mark line. The Chisholms said they were told that once they put the first retaining wall down that was marking their property line and the property high water mark at the time that even though the land behind the retaining wall was washed out and turned into a sandy beach, because it is behind the initial retaining wall that was approved, that it remains their land no matter how the high water mark has changed.

So far this year, the Chisholms have also put in an application to be able to clean up the initial retaining wall as some of the rock had fallen, as referenced by Skerrett as a danger. Wayne shared that the permit was denied for the time being so they are waiting until they are able to have it approved to clean the rocks.

When contacted, the DNR had this to say: “In 2017, erosion control work was undertaken on James Beach by the landowner. Repair work also occurred in the spring of 2020. No permits were required, as the work was within the boundaries of private land, above the mean high water mark at that time. In addition, no work was done on submerged crown land.”

Communications officer Lisa Jarrett added, “We understand that a gap has been put in the wall in question by the landowner, giving the community safe and unobstructed access to walking along the beach at high tide. We are hopeful that this compromise to accommodate the community will ensure that all Black Point residents and others are able to enjoy the beach.”

Wayne and Helen Chisholm stand next to the private property sign in the pathway through their retaining wall. Others in the Black Point community feel the wall is not following high-water mark guidelines and is on Crown land. (Brimicombe photo)