Lachine Marina: Public land should be accessible to the public

Lachine Marina: Public land should be accessible to the public
Back in July, the City of Montreal announced that at the end of this summer season it would be replacing the Lachine Marina with a new waterfront park. With summer officially over and the marina soon set to close, unhappy boat owners are understandably increasing their pressure tactics. Last week, they filed an injunction request, hoping to block the city from going ahead with its plans.

While there are many different elements to this dispute, it’s primarily a story that centres around one major question: why should Montreal taxpayers be funding and subsidizing a club used by a mere 450 boat owners on public land that should be accessible to all?

Why are we paying for this?

According to public records, the marina, which has been around since 1927, has been a drain on public funds for decades. The city kept throwing money at it; either investing significant amounts to keep it running on major annual deficits or repeatedly canceling massive debts that the marina had amassed over the years. When the shoreline suffered serious damage during the spring floods in 2017 and 2019, and impending costly renovations started looming, that came to an end. Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic has repeatedly spoken to the media, explaining in detail that extensive repairs totaling $16.5-million would be required to keep it adequately functioning. That amount (which is being contested by boat owners as too high) does not even take into consideration daily operations that continue to cost Montreal taxpayers.

On the other hand, a newly constructed nautical park, allowing access to the water for everyone, would cost $20-million. Given the two options, it’s not difficult to see which one this administration would choose. Projet Montréal campaigned on a platform of, among other things, sustainable urbanism, environmental sustainability and increasing residents’ quality of life. Opting to invest $4-million more towards creating an all-access riverside park, as opposed to sinking $16.5-million ($37,000 per boat owner) into a club that is ultimately only for the benefit of those who have the means to own, operate, maintain and dock a pleasure boat, is on brand with their priorities and the voters who placed them in office. Mayor Plante was clear while making the announcement back in July. “Our administration is seizing every opportunity to make our metropolis greener and resilient,” she said, calling the transformation of the Lachine Marina “a concrete gesture in terms of ecological transition and the fight against climate change.”

Privilege for the few or public access for the many?

While the city is focusing on increasing access to our waterfront, marina members insist that it is a public club and that everyone can access it. They seem to forget one minor, but pesky, detail: you need to be able to afford a pleasure boat. That leaves out a hell of a lot of people. To add insult to injury, most Lachine Marina members do not even live in Montreal and do not pay taxes to the city. Yet here they are, gearing up for a court battle to demand that they continue to enjoy the privilege of being subsidized by the rest of us.

Property of the city of Montreal since 1986

Of course, now that Montreal residents have been informed that what most of us thought was private land actually belonged to all of us, boat owners are much more willing to compromise and ready to increase their membership fees to help offset some of the repairs and operating costs. But can they really increase them to the point that they can absorb all costs? I find that hard to believe.

I’m not here to vilify boat owners. Despite the occasional glimpse of an impressive yacht here and there, I have spent enough time in the Lachine Canal paddling over the years to know that most pleasure craft owners in Montreal are not the rich and famous I’ve often seen bopping in their floating status symbols in the Mediterranean or Caribbean. Most of them are middle-class folks who own modest pontoon boats or small powerboats that they take out for day rides or fishing. But I still don’t see why I should have to subsidize their hobby.

Are we or aren’t we for environmental protection?

Another major element in the debate is the environment, and whether we support an administration that puts its money where its mouth is and wants to do something about it. I don’t think our city should be prioritizing activities that contribute to water pollution. I much prefer seeing it invest in infrastructure that favours the ethical use of our resources, protects our waterways and riverfront, while prioritizing the public’s access to them. Montreal is an island! We should play to that strength and reclaim what is ours.

And if you build it, they will come. When the city was creating the Verdun Beach, I distinctly remember lots of naysayers who were quick to criticize the idea as silly, but each time I passed by the urban beach this summer, no matter how early or how late in the day, the place was always brimming with families and children and swimmers doing their laps. With the pandemic, the beach became a lifesaver for many local families who don’t have the means, time or transport to leave the city. Why shouldn’t the three kilometres now allocated for the Lachine Marina be used for a swimming area, and canoe and SUP board rentals that everyone can use?

I routinely bike to Lachine and spend time at Parc René-Lévesque, just across the marina. It’s a beautiful green space, beloved by many with its gorgeous willow trees, whimsical public art and gaggles of geese looking for a fight if you dare look at them sideways. That park is a perfect example of how you can take literal waste (the peninsula the park is located on is a landfill) and create something beautiful for everyone to use. It’s an extremely popular area with young families. Head over there any summer weekend and you will be greeted with the heavenly aromas of Caribbean cook-outs, SouthEast Asian BBQs, Jamaican music, line-ups at the tiny ice-cream shack, the ferry bringing in people from Châteauguay. It’s a happy, boisterous, busy place and an easily accessible spot for many Montrealers who don’t have the time or the means to escape the city in the summer heat. Increasing access to the water would only improve the area and offer more opportunities to enjoy it up close by swimming, kayaking, SUP boarding, water tubing etc. Public consultations and water tests in 2021 would determine most of that.

Perhaps there is a way that the city can negotiate some sort of compromise with the marina administration, where a smaller club can operate at a higher cost for members and zero cost to us. But, ultimately, what irate boat owners should get through their heads is that this is public land and in no way theirs. They can take the city to court to delay the process, at additional cost to Montreal taxpayers, but I am not sure what their argument will be.

I get it. If I had a pleasure boat and had a sweet, sweet deal like this, where I was able to use public land, primarily subsidized by public funds derived from Montreal taxpayers, to dock my private boat (even sweeter if I’m not a Montreal resident), I, too, would hate these new plans.

But, like 99.9 per cent of Montreal residents, I am not a boat owner. That fact does not necessarily make me better or worse than people who own a boat. What it does make me is deeply indifferent to the self-serving complaints and cries of “injustice” coming from the association of boat owners who use the marina right now.

I ask you: why should the interests of 450 boat owners be prioritized over the thousands of Montreal residents who could use it in other ways? I honestly can’t think of one good answer to that question. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.
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