A Tofino resort’s long-running crab cookout has brought local frustration over businesses encroaching on public beaches to a boil.
The town’s municipal council reviewed a letter from resident Jack Gillie last week who wrote that he was walking on Chesterman Beach “to discover that a part of the beach had been cordoned off and public access had been restricted.”
“I was surprised as I had always thought the area below the limit of terrestrial vegetation was Crown Foreshore for the use and enjoyment of the public and here it was being appropriated for private commercial purposes,” he wrote. “I ask the District to investigate and rectify this situation. This cannot be a precedent that is allowed to stand. What will be the argument against every beachfront property owner who wants to do the same? And then where would we be?”
Prior to reviewing Gillie’s letter during their Aug. 16 Committee of the Whole meeting, council heard from Wickaninnish Inn owner Charles McDiarmid who said the resort has been hosting the crab cookout for about 15 years and does not intend to block beachgoers from the space.
“This year has been a little challenging staffing wise and making sure people are properly trained. We’re making sure that all staff are fully aware that the beach and the entire area is open to the public,” McDiarmid said. “We have, to my knowledge, never turned anyone away from the space intentionally. There may be staff that weren’t trained to know and to explain that the entire beach, including that area, is open to the public.”
Mayor Dan Law asked if the cookout is a paid event and McDiarmid said there is a fee to attend. Law also asked if the resort had received a permit from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to host the cookout and McDiarmid responded that it had not.
Tofino’s fire chief and manager of protective services Brent Baker said the cookout has been much more visible this year and that increased visibility has increased local concerns.
“The big difference this year is the visibility of it. In previous years, there weren’t umbrellas to draw the attention and it very much all blended in with the beach landscape,” he said.
He said the space being used is “quite substantial” at about 70 ft by 50 ft and that there are 10 “very large” outdoor umbrellas.
“They do stand out quite a bit. It does make it seem as though it is a business on the beach,” he said.
Coun. Duncan McMaster said allowing a business to set up shop on the beach would lead to others following suit.
“I’m concerned that the hurricane called business is about to descend on the town of Tofino and I think we need to nip it in the bud and stop it,” he said.
Coun. Cathy Thicke agreed.
“I also think about the fact that the foreshore and the beach is in the public domain and as council I feel it’s in our best interest and in our power to protect that public access,” she said. “This could be a dangerous precedent in my opinion.”
Coun. Al Anderson echoed the precedent concerns and added that whether the resort is allowing the public into the space or not, the optics are not welcoming to beachgoers.
“I don’t think that the public would get the impression from the set up there that it’s a public space to enter into. It’s definitely a defined area and I wouldn’t say that I would go there thinking I was welcome there,” he said. “If this was allowed, I think any property owner would get the impression that they could encroach onto or somehow cordon off part of the beach for their own use and I don’t think that’s what we want to encourage.”
Coun. Jacky Challenger agreed with Baker that the event is much more visible than past years.
“It’s more noticeable and appears to be more of an exclusive space than it has in the past, so that does make a difference for me in how I feel about it,” she said.
Coun. Britt Chalmers agreed.
“It does seem a little less welcoming this year than it has in the past. It’s never really phased me before,” she said.
District CAO Bob MacPherson said staff would work with the resort to see if any solutions could be found.
“It’s not lost on staff here that we’re hearing around the virtual council table that there isn’t a lot of support for any kind of commercial intrusion into Tofino’s beaches,” he said.
Challenger questioned the rules around business being conducted on beaches, noting surf schools and other businesses are allowed to operate on the beach.
“Why is one allowed where another isn’t?,” she asked. “There’s a lot of grey areas here.”
Law said he would reach out to the provincial government for clarification on commercial use of public beaches and share his correspondence with council.
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