By James Matthews (Local Initiative Journalism)
Algonquin Highlands council will continue to do limited winter maintenance on Bear Lake Road.
But there are conditions.
And fine-tuning those caveats required the arduous “thick soup of process” and a special meeting of town council Oct. 4, said Mayor Carol Moffatt.
A little beyond seven kilometres long, Bear Lake Road is a forest access road as defined in the Public Lands Act, which permits a statutory right of use by the public.
The fact Bear Lake Road is Crown land muddied the issue of winter maintenance. A further complication was the bridge on the road that is a municipal asset.
“It’s been a long morning for us,” said Moffatt. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of legal advice and there are still some issues to be ironed out.”
The resolution: Given the unique character, location, and situation of Bear Lake Road, council supported the township doing minor maintenance on a year-by-year basis. The bridge will be plowed, subject to an agreement between the township and the Bear Lake Road Winter Maintenance Association detailing requirements for damages to the bridge as a result of plowing.
“We need to protect that bridge asset, and also look at some continued access,” the mayor said.
There’s also a requirement for proof of liability insurance of $5-million each by the association, the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, and a third-party contractor. The township will also be named as an additional insured.
Municipal staff will outline the parameters of what constitutes minor maintenance work that will be done on the road.
Council also reserved the right to assess the outcome and review further options in the future.
Final details will be worked out during the next council meeting.
“We’d like to get this wrapped up in time for winter,” Moffatt said.
Council considered five options regarding the road’s maintenance.
Ceasing maintenance would leave property owners and the public to undertake activities of choice under the Public Lands Act and without any involvement by the township.
If council sought full and formal jurisdiction of Bear Lake Road through an Order-in-Council, it would have given the township full jurisdiction of the road.
The town could’ve requested that the provincial government close Bear Lake Road during winter. That would have denied access to residents who use their properties in the winter and impact other long-standing recreational uses such as snowmobiling.
A fourth consideration was that the town not seek jurisdiction at all but continue maintenance activities such as grading.
As a final possibility, the township could have divested to the Crown all interest in the Bear Lake Road bridge.
The Oct. 4 resolution is another step in what’s been a years-long journey for the people of Bear Lake Road.
Property owners have requested since 1971 that the town do winter maintenance on Bear Lake Road. Each time such a request was received, the council of the day reviewed the situation.
Each of those previous requests had been denied because of safety and liability issues.
Then council got a request in 2017 to allow residents to provide their own winter maintenance on Bear Lake Road. But that was denied as well.
At a meeting in July, council considered the road’s jurisdiction and a legal opinion on the issue provided by lawyers at Cassels Brock.
A discussion was held in relation to questions and options about the road’s Crown land status, including the addition of the fourth option which had not been clearly explained by legal counsel.
Council directed that the fourth option be included for consideration at a later meeting along with further clarification on the questions and options raised around the Crown land status of the road.
As a result of council’s request for further clarification of Crown land questions and options, legal counsel included the last option, which was to divest to the Crown all interest in the Bear Lake Road bridge.