Town to consider restricting barge access at small South Portage boat launch

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While the Town of Huntsville recognizes the need for contractors to be able to access island and waterfront properties, it must balance that need with other uses at its municipal boat launches. That was the message that came out of a presentation made by Councillor Dan Armour to General Committee on July 25.

The issue was raised by one of Armour’s constituents specific to the small municipal boat launch and park on the shore of Lake of Bays at 4066 South Portage Road, which falls within Town of Huntsville boundaries.

Armour presented photos and a video of several different barges using the launch adjacent to a dock to gain entry to and egress from Lake of Bays. He noted that there is a small park there which is maintained by the municipality and it includes a boat launch that is 12 metres from the paved shoulder of South Portage Road; the access to the launch is between three and four metres wide.

“It is used a lot by children and young families and tourists every year. It was brought to my attention as  it is starting to be used more by barges for construction on Lake of Bays,” said Armour. He noted that there is shallow water in that location—one of the photos he presented shows a child of about 10 years old standing waist-deep in water near the end of the dock—and said that the barges are destroying the launch. He pointed to a launch at Port Cunnington as an example. “Port Cunnington currently has a barge that goes back and forth to Bigwin Island,” he said. “It has eroded the shoreline at Port Cunnington and they have had to put large mats in place to protect the shoreline.”

He also said that to be able to unload and load barges at the 4066 South Portage Road launch, companies have to park with the front of their truck on the roadway and direct traffic around it. “They tie up the launch for two to three hours at a time,” said Armour. “With the changing of Fairview Island and Langmaid’s Island with the potential development there…I think we need to address this early before it becomes a liability for us.”

The entrance to the public boat launch at 4088 South Portage Rd

The entrance to the public boat launch at 4066 South Portage Rd

A view of the public boat launch at 4088 South Portage Rd from the adjacent dock

A view of the public boat launch at 4066 South Portage Road taken from the end of the adjacent dock

“We have no bylaw restricting any of this commercial use at any of our boat launches. I think it’s important that we address the situation early now and probably prevent losing this section of our gorgeous waterway,” said Armour. As he showed a video of a barge approaching the shoreline, he said, “…you can imagine the sediment that’s being stirred up by that boat right now and the damage it’s causing…you can see the kid running because of the sediment being churned up at the bottom.”

Town CAO Denise Corry clarified that the parks bylaw does allow commercial use provided it doesn’t restrict access for others. “So if it’s for any length of time then we can enforce that bylaw, but if it’s just for a short period of time the current bylaw would not address that.”

Mayor Scott Aitchison said he’d like committee to take a closer look at that location. “…I’m pleased we’ve reduced the speed limit there among other things in part because there’s often people walking back and forth from the little parking area to the water. And I also frankly wondered about the boat launch itself. It’s not really a boat launch, it has sort of I think evolved over time, hasn’t it? I think what went on there is ridiculous and we should probably take a closer look at that and see what we can do about it. It doesn’t seem like a great location for a boat launch to begin with and I’m wondering if it’s something that we shouldn’t take a closer look at as well and maybe not have a boat launch there and make it really more of an access for people to actually play safely and not have to worry about boats getting launched with kids playing in the water right there.”

In response to a question by Councillor Jonathan Wiebe, Armour said he’d like to see a total restriction on barges at that launch. “I don’t think it should be used for that and I don’t think it’s of any benefit to the municipality of Huntsville at all. I think there’s only Fairview Island out there now that would have anything to do with our municipality.” He added that other municipalities, including Lake of Bays, do have some rules and regulations in place to address commercial use at their boat launches.

Director of Operations and Protective Services, Steve Hernen, said that the Lake of Bays parks bylaw does have strong language recording commercial use at docks and boat launches, and that it had been discussed by previous Huntsville councils. “The council of the day didn’t want that because there’s a lot of spots where there’s only water access,” he said. “Maybe we should put some language in with a schedule and list the parks that shouldn’t be used. South Portage is a great example. Skeleton Lake, Buck Lake, Indian Landing—there are certain ones around the community that probably shouldn’t be used and we can put some suggested wording together and bring back a report for council’s consideration…but I’ve got to remind you there’s certain lakes they have to use public access to get to their cottages and we’ve got marinas that use them on a regular basis, too.”

CAO Corry added that “There is also planning issues we would need to consider because if all access was cut off from the barges then there would be no further development.”

And Councillor Wiebe reminded committee members that barges aren’t used just for island properties, but also for waterfront lots that are difficult to access from land and for contractors to install and work on docks.

Councillor Bob Stone said he’d “be happy to have staff investigate changing the bylaw for all boat launches.”

To which Councillor Jason FitzGerald was quick to reply, “…I don’t think we can close all the boat launches, we cannot restrict every access point in Huntsville from barges. I think we need to come up with solutions to keep everyone happy.”

Councillor Wiebe wondered if the public launch on Brunel Road should be considered for restrictions as well. “(It) would fall into the same category—close to the road, kind of a park. Should that be included?”

But in the end committee voted on a resolution concerning only the boat launch at 4066 South Portage Road which directs staff to investigate the concerns raised by Councillor Armour and return with a report outlining potential bylaw controls for the use of the dock. It was carried unanimously.

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4 Comments

  1. Karen Wehrstein on

    Thanks to Dan for advocating on this issue and to the Huntsville town council for unanimously taking the first step toward a bylaw. The park is used by many permanent residents who do not have waterfront properties, including myself. Both my sons, now grown men, learned to swim in the shallow sandy-bottomed water at that idyllic little place. As the pictures illustrate, the boat-launch is narrow, designed for the small pleasure craft that are the vast majority of its users, and very close to the road. It is really not suitable for industrial, i.e. barge, use.

    Re Mayor Scott’s idea of perhaps not having a boat launch there at all: I think local cottagers, residents and visiting boaters might object unless another one is established in the near vicinity. But the launch does have its problems. Because it’s so close to the road, boaters have to back up their trailers starting on the road, which creates a certain amount of obstruction of road traffic (though nothing like the 2-3 hours with barges that Dan mentioned, only a few minutes max and people tend to be considerate about getting out of each other’s way). Because it’s so narrow, it is difficult to back into, so many boaters have to make multiple attempts, and every now and then damage their trailers by colliding with rocks, trees, etc. The parking lot is small so that on busy summer weekends, you’ll see a line of vehicles with trailers parked on the very narrow shoulder of the road. Finally, the incline of the lake bottom is too gradual, so they often have to back up to the point of putting their exhaust pipes in the water to float the boat off the trailer. In summer I go there to swim and work (I take my computer) every day that weather permits, and I see boaters struggle with this every time. If the mayor’s idea of removing the boat launch is rejected, then it could stand some improvements.

  2. It’s too bad that this problem surfaced so late in the summer. Instead of the Town merely concerning themselves with the Portage boat launch, a summer student could have been taking photos of every municipal boat launch. This would be accompanied by his/her observations: condition of the launch (and neighbouring shoreline), lake bottom material (and slope), appropriateness for use by barges, potentially better locations in the vicinity, presence of parks and swimming, etc.
    .
    An engineering/planning student would acclimatize themselves with report-writing (an essential part of their vocations); as well as getting outside the office for a while: win-win, methinks.

  3. Kelly Zytaruk on

    I think it is great that the Town is addressing developer usage of the park. The park is intended for the local residents and visitors to use. There are other barge access points on the Lake that commercial interests can make use of.

    There is a safety issue of docking / loading / unloading a barge with small children in the area. Children and the public are not permitted at a construction site due to legal liabilities. I view loading / unloading a barge as part of the construction process especially if they are there for 3 hours.

    I would like to know what the insurance companies for these barge operators have to say about having small children present when the barges are present. What will they cover in the event of an accident?

    The boat launch sees a lot of activity during the summer. It should not be removed as there is no close alternative. As mentioned by Karen it is close to the road and it can be difficult to get into. It would be nice to see it relocated a little farther away from the beach area and easier to access.

  4. Brian Tapley on

    Just because one “can” do something does not always mean one “should” do it.

    Perhaps this old adage might be applicable not only to barge landing operations but also to some island developments generally. If we manage to “develop” every single inch of shoreline on our lakes we may have a nice meaty tax revenue but the very reason to visit some of these lakes will have vanished in the process.

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