The Battle for a Prince Edward Island Beach

A Toronto millionaire wanted to build a beachfront mega-cottage on a remote stretch of Prince Edward Island’s pristine north shore. Then the locals got wind of it.
by SARAH TRELEAVEN Photography by Jamie Levin
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August 16, 2023

When Bryson Guptill moved from Ottawa to Prince Edward Island 27 years ago, he found in the tiny island’s coastline a kind of sanctuary—a serene landscape that seemed to reward endless days and weeks of exploring. After retiring from his job as a government policy analyst several years ago, Guptill dedicated even more time to his passion. Today he walks the island’s shores almost daily, posting regular maps of his hikes to a Facebook group for fellow beach fanatics. Few people know the island’s coast as well as he does. But one sunny afternoon in September of 2022, on Blooming Point Beach—a vast stretch of white sand commanding a dramatic view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence—he and his partner, Sue, encountered something that caught them completely off guard.

Three kilometres east of the beach’s main parking lot, the pair stumbled upon a construction site. Several excavators surrounded the foundation for a huge new building, shockingly close to the beach. Encircling the site was a wall of armour stone—huge natural boulders, arranged to form a breakwater—extending all the way to the waterline. It made the beach completely untraversable during all but the lowest tides, despite the fact that P.E.I.’s coastal beaches are public property right up to the high tide line, as are beaches across the country.

Guptill was aghast. When he got home, he posted pictures of the site to his Facebook group; within minutes, comments began pouring in. One person called the development “Putin’s Palace North.” Another complained that P.E.I. was turning into Miami. Within days, TV crews from Charlottetown were flocking to the site, curious locals were flying drones overhead and the massive, mysterious structure had become the talk of the island. It seemed impossible that anyone could get permission to build what appeared to be a monster-home-in-the-making on one of P.E.I.’s delicate—and legally protected—public beaches. As the backlash intensified, a strong suspicion arose that whoever was responsible for the under-construction behemoth must somehow have skirted the rules. And even if they hadn’t, they’d violated a deeply held cultural norm in P.E.I.: you don’t block the beach.

That impression hardened when the builder’s identity started circulating online: Jesse Rasch, a fortysomething dot-com millionaire and investment fund manager from Toronto. Rasch’s development application had been filed by a corporation named for the property’s address, 251 Kelpie Lane. But sharp-eyed web sleuths noticed that it had a Toronto mailing address matching that of Rasch’s philanthropic organization, the Jesse and Julie Rasch Foundation.
“Let one do it and soon our beaches will all be taken over by foreigners with money,” wrote another Facebook commenter— “foreigner” referring not to people from other countries, but from other provinces. “The beaches belong to us.”

That point is indisputable. Though public access to beaches is enshrined in law throughout Canada, P.E.I. is a unique case: its coastline is largely made up of sandy beaches, a public commonwealth and a source of huge pride in this tidy dominion of 170,000 people. And, as in many small places, that pride can sometimes tip into gatekeeping—there are even different rules for locals and outsiders who want to build next to the beach. In 1982, the province passed the Lands Protection Act, restricting the amount of land a non-resident can own to five acres (Islanders get 1,000 acres) and 165 feet of shoreline frontage.

The policy exists for good reason. Despite its tiny population, P.E.I. is the most densely populated province in Canada, because it’s also the smallest. There is little room to stretch out; land is scarce and precious here. If an outsider wants to build bigger than the allowed maximums, they have to ask the province for approval by cabinet. That’s exactly what Rasch did. In September of 2020, he received approval to purchase a 17-acre plot in an unincorporated area called Point Deroche.

Once Guptill’s photos blew up online, the seemingly straightforward decision turned into an island-wide uproar. Some opponents contended that the government made a mistake granting permission—not only was the project too big, it was also too close to the water, violating the province’s rules about waterfront encroachment. New shorefront constructions, according to P.E.I.’s Planning Act, must be set back at least 75 feet from the top of the bank behind the beach. (Making things more confusing, Rasch’s development permit only required a 15-metre buffer zone, though the building appeared to be in violation of that as well.) Others lobbed accusations of cronyism and corruption.

Rasch claimed his property was exempt from setback rules thanks to an obscure clause in provincial legislation. The government agreed with him. The province’s Green Party, who formed the official Opposition at the time, did not. Neither did a growing coalition of irate islanders. The affair now sits at the centre of a legal battle that may both derail the project and permanently change how beachfront development occurs on P.E.I.

The showdown at Point Deroche isn’t just about one millionaire’s mega-cottage. It’s become a flashpoint for Islanders’ anxieties as their province grapples with a post-COVID population explosion that’s quickly transforming a formerly sleepy place. And in a small province whose limited public land is already under threat from erosion and rising seas, the battle symbolizes a question that dogs Canadian summers from coast to coast: who gets access to our precious natural assets—the rich, or the rest?

Rasch chose a perfectly fraught moment to provoke Islanders’ anger. For generations, P.E.I. was a place that seemed trapped in a seemingly permanent spiral of outmigration and aging demographics, exporting its young and importing almost no one. Beginning around 2015, that began to change. For seven years running, this tiny island has been the country’s fastest-growing province. A surge in both immigration, and migration from other provinces, has added 26,000 people, a nearly 20 per cent increase in the island’s population. The boom predated the COVID-19 pandemic, but it went into overdrive in the past two years, and today shows no sign of slowing. The province’s median age has plunged, there is more wealth than ever and the population is remarkably more diverse—something I noticed when I ate Korean food in Charlottetown alongside East Asian and West African diners.

But the boom has also put enormous pressure on social services, health care and infrastructure. Rental vacancy rates are well under one per cent, and the cost of housing has surged. The benchmark home price has more than doubled in the past seven years, from $163,000 to $358,000. That’s an eye-popping figure for many locals, but a bargain for most big-city Canadians, who sometimes come in for criticism—fairly or not—for inflating the local housing market by gobbling up the best parcels of land and the nicest houses.

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In this context, Rasch is a perfect antagonist. He’s not just a rich guy, but a rich guy from Toronto, who in 2000 made a fortune while still in his early 20s, selling a majority interest in the web-hosting company he founded for US$115 million before going on to head an investment firm called Hedgewood.

He also exhibits a penchant for ostentation that’s anathema to this part of the country—and, perhaps, to good taste. In March of 2002, he paid $20,000 to publish a full-page proposal to his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Julie Lee, in the National Post. (He later launched a website—JuliesAnswer.com—to track her response through the following day.) His new cottage is similarly showy. I joked to a friend that I was going to P.E.I. to see his house, but I could have spotted it from space.

The road to Point Deroche is classic P.E.I., flanked by the island’s iconic red soil, scrappy shrubs, verdant ponds and, of course, several potato fields. The smell of salt water and the sounds of birdsong carry on the summer breeze. The entrance to Kelpie Lane—the private road leading to Rasch’s under-construction house—is less welcoming, delineated by several no-trespassing signs. When I stepped out of my car during a visit in June, I could hear the distant sounds of excavators continuing their work, fortifying the rock wall that will be Rasch’s first defence against the sea. Renderings depict a modern, dune-coloured home of nearly 7,000 square feet spread over five buildings with abundant skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows. The development has a lord-of-the-manor vibe; Rasch will be able to look down from high above it all, the little people unable to get past his wall unless they swim around it. It seems like the perfect summer retreat—nothing to do but stare at the ocean and scan the horizon for approaching pitchforks.

An incomplete compound under construction, with blue ocean in the background and forested areas in the foreground.
Rasch’s under-construction compound on Blooming Point Beach, which opponents say it will obstruct the beachgoing public’s right of way

Rasch’s massive, modern abode could hardly be more different from the modest, traditionally styled house that he demolished on the same property. Nor could Rasch, the aloof millionaire from away, be more different from that house’s owners, Jack and Barbara MacAndrew. From the 1950s to the ’90s, Jack was a prominent figure in East Coast journalism—a reporter, CBC producer and political commentator whose bearded, grandfatherly face was known across the region. After Jack died in 2014, the family sold the land and the house. When I spoke to Barbara MacAndrew, now in her late 80s, she told me that the property was listed for $1.2 million, but a realtor representing Rasch’s wife talked her down to $800,000. She says she never met Rasch or his wife and was never told of their plans. When I asked if she regrets selling the property to them, she said, “Is the Pope Catholic?”

For a moment last September, it looked like the provincial government too was experiencing a kind of seller’s remorse. Within days of Guptill’s Facebook post, provincial officials visited the site and issued a stop-work order. The Department of Agriculture and Land found that the development was not in compliance with the 15-metre buffer zone required by his development permit. Emails from the province to Derek French, a P.E.I.-based planner working on the project, were full of tough talk: “It is critical that you contact the owner and contractor and advise them that they must cease and desist all construction activities on this property.”

But tough talk soon gave way to confusion about where, exactly, the setback should begin and end. Opponents argued it should be measured from the start of the natural shoreline, which the permit seemed to indicate; Rasch’s team argued it should be from the new erosion protection system—the huge pile of rocks extending almost 20 metres past the natural shore, and well beyond the high-tide mark that demarcates public land.

Nicholas Jay, the project’s contractor, suggested to local officials that they didn’t know how to accurately measure the site. In late September, Jay informed provincial planning staff that, given the upcoming hurricane season, he intended to continue with construction—even though the stop-work order was still in effect. Then, in mid-October, Eugene Lloyd, acting manager of provincial planning, cheerfully informed Jay that he could proceed. The about-face, he explained, came after discussions with colleagues in the Department of Environment, who explained how the development was compliant after all.

By November, the house at Point Deroche had become a hot topic in the provincial legislature. P.E.I. is the only province besides B.C. where the Green Party has been a meaningful force. That has a lot to do with the popularity of Peter Bevan-Baker, a kindly dentist, originally from Scotland, who moved to P.E.I. in 2003. Under his leadership, the Greens formed the official Opposition—a first for any Canadian province. Conservation of P.E.I.’s waterfront land is a key issue for the Greens, and for a while, Rasch’s offending house became one of Bevan-Baker’s main grievances with the sitting government. Throughout November, he and Premier Dennis King, of the Progressive Conservatives, sparred about it in the legislature.

By this point, a new explanation had emerged from the government as to why the Rasch house was compliant: a “working policy” between the Department of Agriculture and Land and the Department of Environment, which allowed Rasch to build inside the footprint of the old MacAndrew property, closer than the 15-metre buffer zone would otherwise permit. There was only one problem: no one could turn up a written copy of it. “What is this policy,” Bevan-Baker needled the premier in early November. “Where can I find it?”

To Bevan-Baker and Guptill, even if the policy did turn out to permit the development, it was on a technicality. It’s true that the old MacAndrew house was, in fact, even closer to the water than Rasch’s, before it was demolished. And it, too, was protected by a seawall—a makeshift affair constructed of water-logged timber—that made the public beach impassable at high tide. The difference, however, is that the MacAndrew house didn’t start out so close to the beach. It was delivered there over time, as powerful waves and intense storms chipped away at the coast over decades.

The high-tide line at Point Deroche, which marks where the private lot begins and the public beach ends, has moved back around 60 feet in the past 40 years. When the MacAndrews built their house in the 1980s, they could have almost put an Olympic-sized swimming pool between it and the beach. For critics, the mysterious policy was a way to satisfy the letter of the law, but not the spirit—if it even existed. Bevan-Baker was never given a copy, and suspected it was really a nod-and-wink agreement between the developers and the government.

Guptill, meanwhile, decided kvetching online was no longer enough. Throughout last fall, he and like-minded allies hosted community forums with names like “Point Deroche Disaster” and “Land Abuse & Power of the People,” where they called on residents to push back against what they saw as petty corruption and protect the island’s precious natural resources. A petition entitled “STOP WORK ORDER ON POINT DEROCHE, PEI!” garnered 3,000 signatures, a big number on an island with only 170,000 people.

Soon, Rasch took it upon himself to address the criticisms directly. He launched a website, pointderoche.ca—though, in an effort to safeguard his by-then dwindling privacy, it describes the property’s owners only as a humble family from rural Ontario. Most of the site is dedicated to arguments, pictures, graphs and diagrams that look like they were zealously prepared for small claims court, to refute accusations made by detractors. It extols his new erosion protection system (the boulder wall) and references the working policy permitting him to build within the 15-metre buffer. A rendering of the house even features a woman walking a dog in the small section of beach that will ostensibly be opened up by the demolition of the original MacAndrew seawall—though it also notes that “not many people routinely venture to the area in question.”

The overall implication is clear: Rasch has a right to build in the original footprint of the existing property and has gone through all the correct channels to do so. Irate Islanders, perhaps recovering from a devastating tumble off a turnip truck, were simply misinformed. The website also includes this passage: “We know it is hard for people to accept new information that contradicts strongly held prior opinions, even when the new information is credible and may invalidate previously held assumptions.”

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Rasch got permission from the government for his 17-acre compound in September of 2020

To date, the website is the main overture Rasch has made to the local community. On the beach near his construction site is a sign stuck in the sand, bearing a QR code. When scanned, it brings users to the site.

I reached out to Rasch for comment, and he replied, a little defensively. He provided me with dozens of messages of support he received through the website, many thanking him for his transparency and wishing him luck. Rasch sent me several loquacious emails, in which he alternated between lengthy explanation and what seemed like mild irritation at the requirement for said explanations. “The sustained interest in our cottage project is somewhat unexpected,” he wrote to me. “It seems some individuals questioning the work are skilled in weaving narratives that have captivated a largely unquestioning media.” Rasch declined my requests for a verbal interview, explaining that he was a very private person.

Across the country, similar battles over public access have long played out, from B.C’s Gulf Islands to Ontario’s cottage country. In Fort Erie, Ontario, tensions have simmered for years between locals and deep-pocketed American cottagers, many of whom technically own stretches of sand and have tried to prevent beach walkers from trespassing, even when their private land bisects a public beach. In another dispute, near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, Eleanor McCain (of the french-fry McCains) drew locals’ ire when she cut off a path on her property that had long been used by the public, creating a 30-minute detour.

There’s another complicating factor on P.E.I., beyond tensions between locals and come-from-aways. The province’s shoreline is quickly retreating, as the fate of the MacAndrew house clearly demonstrates. One hot and sunny day this June, I visited two members of the University of P.E.I.’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation: Ross Dwyer, the affable South African manager of research partnerships, and Catherine Kennedy, a master’s student originally from Newfoundland, who has been monitoring erosion and flooding since 2014, using 120 weather stations across the island. We set out for Savage Harbour, a small coastal community a few kilometres east of Rasch’s construction site.

Kennedy has studied erosion at Savage Harbour for five years. On average, the site has shed nearly a metre of shoreline a year—an already alarming rate. But when Hurricane Fiona struck the island last year, the site lost 17 metres. When we arrived, I saw that much of the land in front of the community had simply been consumed by the ocean.

The toll of the hurricane was especially apparent at the end of one recently reconstructed dirt road, where two dozen mostly modest houses were in various states of disrepair: roofs stripped of shingles, siding that had been violently torn away. One home’s well cap was exposed, submerged in salt water during high tides. Homeowners had pushed sand and rock into the concave bluff in a futile stab at land reclamation; others were amassing concrete blocks along the edge, even though the same strategy failed in the last storm, and concrete blocks littered the beach. One home was teetering on the edge of the bluff.

Stephanie Arnold is a climate services specialist at CLIMAtlantic, a regional climate-research organization. “We’re often described as a large sandbar in the water,” she says of P.E.I. “We don’t have the hard bedrock that our neighbouring provinces have. So, whenever we have a storm surge event, the sediment base that our island rests on is much more erodible.”

One solution might just be to, say, build an enormous barrier like Rasch’s right in front of your property. But these structures can disrupt delicate coastal ecosystems and, in the end, they can still be ineffective. One bad storm can override everything, the power of the water scouring the land above, beside and in between the rocks.

Islanders may be upset that moneyed migrants are usurping the best spots near the province’s precious coastline. But in the long run—or the not-so-long run—there’s a bigger problem for those newcomers. “They arrive on a beautiful day like today,” says Dwyer of seasonal residents, “and they get sucked in, but then what?” A handful of realtors are now requesting coastal hazard assessments that anticipate impending damage from climate change, he says, but the practice is still rare.

What shocked me the most at Savage Harbour wasn’t the destruction. It was the construction: two brand new homes, being built close to the edge of the bluff. The amount of land between the houses and the edge is smaller than the amount lost during Hurricane Fiona.

Kennedy brought up a projection on her phone that overlaid the footprint of the site in 1959 on top of the present day. Sixty years ago, there were two full additional lots in front of homes that are now teetering on the edge of a cliff. I asked if we could expect to lose two more rows of homes in the next 60 years. Maybe, she said. Or it may be worse.

There are two prongs to the opposition to Rasch’s compound. One is a matter of lawfulness—that he shouldn’t have received the permits at all. The other is that, even if everything is above board, the work simply isn’t responsible. Obstructing a public beach isn’t what a conscientious person, or a good neighbour, or a person interested in environmental stewardship, would do. In the words of a beach walker I spoke to at Blooming Point: “Maybe he’s technically right, but it was still a dick move.”

Guptill, and a growing coalition of Islanders, remain convinced that he is technically wrong. Stuart Neatby, a reporter with P.E.I.’s Guardian newspaper, has been following the controversy over Point Deroche since the beginning. After months of fruitless appeals to the provincial government to get a copy of the oft-cited but never seen working policy that the government said provides legal backing for Rasch’s home, Neatby received a policy document this February, setting out conditions for building variances in buffer zones. It wasn’t immediately clear if it was the working policy everyone was looking for—it wasn’t found in the Planning Act that governs coastal development, but was written by a bureaucrat in the Department of Environment. Eventually, I confirmed through the office of P.E.I.’s environment minister that, indeed, it was the policy that Guptill, Bevan-Baker and local media had been chasing for months.

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Bryson Guptill, a beachwalking enthusiast and environmental advocate, wants to take his crusade against the Point Deroche project to the courts. (Photograph by Sean Berrigan)

But this, says Guptill, only brings up more questions. The policy clearly states that buildings can only be constructed within the 15-metre buffer zone if they “cannot be located outside the buffer zone,” presumably due to space constraints. In the case of Rasch’s property, which occupies 17 acres and extends about a kilometre from the beach, there appears to be ample wiggle room. In any case, Guptill also insists the relevant rules here are found in the Planning Act, which requires 75 feet, or about 23 metres, between the coast and new construction. This contradiction has gone unaddressed.

According to a provincial employee I spoke to with close knowledge of the matter, Bevan-Baker’s suspicions about secretive motivations may be well founded after all. The source says that provincial bureaucrats were pressured by both the Department of Agriculture and Land and the Department of Environment to come up with a rationale for how work on the Point Deroche property could proceed, even though it appeared to contravene regulations. Their rationale may have been found in this policy document—even though it doesn’t, on close reading, appear to allow for a project like Rasch’s. As to why the government is so eager to approve one man’s development, they can’t guess. Tourism and part-time residents are an important part of the economy in much of rural P.E.I. And in the Maritimes in general, governments are often loath to turn down out-of-province investment—money from away. (Provincial officials did not respond to queries about these allegations of political interference.)

This May, Guptill and several citizen groups, including the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Lands, secured an opinion from Mike Kofahl, a young lawyer with East Coast Environmental Law in Halifax. Kofahl told me it’s unlikely the permit was lawfully issued, even as laid out in the working policy.

In June, at a rally organized by the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Lands, more than 100 people gathered in front of the provincial legislature in Charlottetown and presented Premier King with an anti-development petition. Guptill hopes the government will intervene—as it did when it introduced a temporary moratorium on shoreline development in February, largely due to the controversy over Rasch’s compound.

Rasch now appears eager to get things built quickly, with construction proceeding at a rapid clip. He says he’s received threatening messages, and appears to be genuinely irritated by the opposition that has stymied, if briefly, construction of his seaside compound. He was emboldened in June, when an investigator with the provincial ombudsman’s office determined that his development approval was above board. Guptill now intends to push for a judicial review.

Of course, the sea continues to advance. I put this to Rasch—that maybe he shouldn’t be building where he is, even if he can. He seemed unwilling to grapple with the idea. “The design and construction of the improved shoreline protection system was entrusted to a team of experts and is unquestionably a vast improvement,” he wrote. “It would have been irresponsible to leave the old decaying and environmentally unfriendly seawall in place.”

One quiet afternoon on Blooming Point Beach, the sun still high, I struck up a conversation with a retiree who was walking toward his car, with a folding chair slung over his shoulders. I told him I was writing about the house at Point Deroche, and he scoffed. “He’s going to lose in the end, you know,” he told me, referring to Rasch. I assumed he meant the administrative battle playing out. No, he clarified: “The water always wins. It goes where it wants.”