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Free ride on the waterfront
But that could come to an end if harbour commission moves in

The city's waterfront, and the lack of public access to it, has long been a contentious issue in Yellowknife. The city's attempt to open up shoreline in Old Town and Latham Island to walking trails seven years ago met with fierce resistance from landowners who didn't like the idea of people traipsing through their backyards and by their private docks. Another unresolved issue is the lack of rules relating to houseboats in Yellowknife Bay. Yellowknifer reporter Jack Danylchuk explores these issues and possibilities for the future in a feature series that begins today.

Jack Danylchuk
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - If the harbour commission proposed for Yellowknife Bay moves beyond the talking phase and takes control of the city's waterfront, Paul Servos has some words of advice almost certain to raise the hackles of those who take free moorage for granted.

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Old Town property owner and architect Wayne Guy on the Government Dock: public access to the city waterfront has diminished in the last decade, he says. - Jack Danylchuk/NNSL photo

"Market value," says Servos, chief executive officer of the Greater Victoria Port Authority, in Victoria, B.C. "That would be my one piece of advice - market value. Make that the guiding principle. If we didn't get market value we wouldn't be able to sustain the assets we were given."

Established in 2002, the Victoria port authority started life with a cruise ship terminal, a float home community, 14,000 linear feet of rental moorage, a busy floatplane terminal, and waterside spaces that it leases to restaurants, buskers and artisans.

Rents and fees earn the port authority $6 million a year - half of it collected from visiting cruise ships, making it Victoria's eighth largest taxpayer, said Servos. "We're a private corporation registered as a not for profit society; we receive no grants."

Since 1998, when Canada Marine Act revisions turned harbour management over to local authorities or private agencies, "there has been no free moorage on the west coast," he said.

Moorage for boats is $10 a linear foot per month. Transient vessels, about 3,800 a year, pay $1.40 per foot per day. Houseboat rents are $1 per sq foot per month, plus a licence fee of $150 a month, plus utilities, and the local improvement portion of the municipal property tax. If that sounds high, Servos cites an independent third-party review that found the opposite.

Houseboat rents were 40 to 50 cents a square foot when the port authority took over management of the marinas. "We raised the rent to market value. You're talking about waterfront property, downtown, in British Columbia's capital city," he said.

The authority is run by a board of directors appointed by the City of Victoria, the Capital Regional District, Esquimalt Municipality, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Victoria, and the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations - disparate groups that do not always agree on issues.

"They do not represent the various member groups," Servos said. "The directors are responsible to the board, not to those who appointed them; they are charged with managing the facilities for the benefit of the community."

Among the authority's goals is to "develop a comprehensive plan for the whole harbour that will help establish the port authority as leader and advocate, (and) gain more local stewardship of harbour waters and assets through targeted divestiture and acquisitions."

Yellowknife already has a plan for its waterfront, which was shelved since it was written 10 years ago, stranded by competing claims over jurisdiction and strident opposition from residents accustomed to free use of public land. These obstacles will almost certainly disappear if a harbour commission is formed.

In the absence of clearly-defined authority, "tenure has been claimed because someone peed on a rock, but that can't continue - we're running out of space," Anne Lynagh declared at the inaugural meeting of the Yellowknife Harbour Planning Committee. The group has two years and $400,000 to explore the feasibility of establishing a commission to preside over the water and shoreline between the Yellowknife River and Dettah.

"We used to be able to tie up anywhere when we came to town," Dettah Chief Edward Sangris told fellow committee members. "But it's got so that there is nowhere to tie up a boat without someone yelling at you to 'get the hell out - that's private property.'"

Lynagh, a houseboat owner who now lives on land and rents out her former home on the water, told the meeting it's time for houseboat residents to begin paying fees to the city - a proposal that a decade ago provoked a legal battle that houseboaters won because city jurisdiction ends at the shoreline.

According to city officials, many floatplane and boat owners whose properties back onto the water enjoy the use of docks that intrude onto public space, while others have gone for years without challenge or charge when they built docks on Commissioner's lands. They too can expect to contribute to the upkeep of a harbour commission.

Mayor Gord Van Tighem, an ex-officio member of the harbour committee, said that based on the court ruling in the tax dispute between the city and houseboaters, ultimate authority over the waterfront lies with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

"Enforcement is done by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Coast Guard Auxiliary, then Environment Canada and Parks Canada stick their pinkies in from time to time," he said. "There is confusion throughout."

Except for INAC, which Van Tighem said "never shows up at the table," all of the competing jurisdictions sit on the harbour committee, and "one of the first clarifications that needs to occur through that committee is who has authority."

Architect Wayne Guy, whose office in Old Town looks across MacDonald Drive to the waterfront, led an effort in 2005 to bring the city and federal government to the table when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided to rebuild a warehouse destroyed by fire.

The warehouse won over Guy's proposal for a park, which he saw as a much needed alternative on a waterfront fragmented by fences that bar public access to formerly open areas.

"Unless all parties look at it as a single resource and harmonize their efforts to get the best, then we will have a waterfront that is fenced off," said Guy.

"Right now there's not really any management; it's sort of a grey area between municipal and federal jurisdiction, and there's no co-ordination." As part of that effort to establish a harbour commission, "there needs to be a master planning exercise for Yellowknife Bay," said Guy. "That would greatly enhance enjoyment of the waterfront."

When Guy came to Yellowknife 30 years ago, "it was possible to walk from the Woodyard to Latham Island along the water, but it's fenced now," he said.

"A lot of this has all happened in the last two years. You can be in this town for years and not realize it's on the tenth largest lake in the world."

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