Algonquin Highlands council has directed township staff to continue summer maintenance along Crown-owned Bear Lake Road.

At a Jan. 18 meeting, council heard from Adam Thorn, public works manager, that a trial held last summer hadn’t caused his department any issues and was deemed a success. He said he’d be in favour of adopting the road into the municipality’s seasonal road maintenance policy.

“We started in June and ran through to October. Overall, it was a successful season. I didn’t see overly large amounts of damage to the road… the major complaints we did hear were over surface treated sections [where] potholes were starting to form and some other areas that have been torn up by vehicles turning in and out near surface treated areas,” Thorn said.

Under the agreement, staff patrolled the road once per month, provided grading on it twice and did some dust control work. Other minor maintenance operations such as culvert cleaning, ditching, brushing and gravel application were not required, Thorn said.

The township’s previous council agreed to the trial in October 2022 after a lengthy back and forth with representatives from the Bear Lake Winter Maintenance Association (BLWMA). The group had long lobbied the township to allow winter maintenance on the thoroughfare so those with homes and cottages in the area could access their property after the first snowfall.

Council had repeatedly denied that request, believing the road to be municipally owned. The association didn’t give in, however, and retained a lawyer to assess what options its members had. The lawyer reported the township never had formal ownership of Bear Lake Road, despite maintaining it for more than 50 years.

While the township had documents suggesting the former Sherbourne township assumed ownership in 1971, that paperwork was deemed to be incorrect, with the land belonging to the Crown.

Council debated walking away from the road but opted to carry out maintenance last year, with a view to establishing a more permanent arrangement providing there were no issues.

Thorn noted the road will now be eligible for regular seasonal maintenance during the spring, summer and fall, which includes: patrolling once a month, or as needed due to a weather event; grading once a month, or as needed; preparing the site for grading and gravel in early spring and then carrying out the work in the summer; doing culvert clean-outs or replacements, as needed; doing ditching work, brushing, sign maintenance and tree removal; and cold patching surface treated sections.

The municipality’s asset management plan states Bear Lake Road will be due single surface treatment in 2026, with costs estimated at $49,534. It’s up for reconstruction between 2032 and 2034, at a cost of just over $184,000.

Thorn noted since the road is on Crown land, the township would need to apply for a permit to complete the work through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Should any culverts along the road need to be replaced, he said staff may have to apply for an environmental assessment before doing any work.

Due to liability concerns, Thorn recommended council not consider winter maintenance.

He did warn there was some risk associated with spring, summer and fall maintenance.

“If we go and grade a road, we have to understand we take on everything… if someone comes in and does work behind us or say, someone decides to take the gravel we put down, leaving a big divot, if a car then drives down and has an accident, that’s on us,” Thorn said.

Mayor Liz Danielsen said she’d like to see the BLWMA, or any other entity carrying out work on the road, to enter into an agreement with the municipality that they would accept responsibility if damages occur, but CAO Angie Bird said, since the municipality doesn’t own the road, it has no authority to make any such request.

Coun. Sabrina Richards said she has “big concerns” with liability, noting the township has made decisions recently, such as with its license of occupation policy, to mitigate potential risks. She felt this was “a very big gift” for residents of Bear Lake Road.

Deputy mayor Jennifer Dailloux, who has consulted extensively with the BLWMA, felt this was a good move by council. “This has been a challenging journey for everyone… but this is a good day,” she said.