Toronto cottagers heading to Muskoka these days might find tranquility a little harder to find.
Proving still waters can run deep, cottagers and residents alike are protesting new multi-unit condominium projects around the lakes that have made the region famous.
That fight to “save Muskoka” has prompted a construction freeze in one community, while local governments look for a satisfactory solution.
At the heart of the argument? The definition of what constitutes a “resort.”
“Historically in the past, the business model of a resort in Muskoka was typically one owner,” explains David Pink, director of planning for the Township of Muskoka Lakes, part of the District of Muskoka.
“There was one large property and they would build a number of units or one main lodge, and they would rent out rooms like a hotel-type set-up.”
Muskoka’s short two-month tourist season and changing vacation tastes have made that model less feasible for resort owners. And the resulting decline of the traditional Muskoka resorts has led the way for a rise in condominium-style projects instead, with multiple owners purchasing single units at larger properties.
But whether those properties should be considered “resorts,” or even be allowed at all, depends on whom you ask.
For developers, the condominium model is more feasible financially than the traditional resort set-up, allowing them to earn back the initial development costs through the sale of individual units.
For the local municipalities, they offer new life to properties zoned commercial, contributing to the economy, local tax base, and community employment opportunities.
But a group of local residents and cottagers are worried these projects will overcrowd the local lakes, threatening their sensitive ecosystems and water quality, while also creating issues around boat safety.
“We are focussing on protecting the environment in Muskoka for generations to come,” says Lawton Osler, president of the community-led Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA).
The MLA has joined forces with Friends of Muskoka (Martin Short, one of the “friends,” even voiced the campaign video (above)) — another community-led group — in a “Save Muskoka” campaign designed to stop what they call “high-density residential waterfront subdivisions.”
“Residential subdivisions are normally not permitted in the Township of Muskoka Lakes,” Friends of Muskoka wrote in a recent press release. “Developers are trying to take advantage of special densities allowed on commercial resort properties to subvert these rules.”
While several projects have gained the attention of the Save Muskoka campaign, of particular concern has been a large-scale development by Ken Fowler Enterprises, located in Minett, part of the Muskoka Lakes township.
There, approximately 1,500 units have been proposed by the developer, with a total of about 4,000 allowed according to the local Official Plan.
The Minett project, Pink says, was approved 10 years ago, but only recently has the developer moved forward to implement their plans.
“All the proper process was done: public meetings, studies. [Residents] don’t remember that, they just see ‘wow, all of these resorts are being developed. They’re high-density, they’re condominium, they’re not really resorts.’ It’s just created a perfect storm,” says Pink, calling it “a very difficult issue.”
Faced with community protest against these condominium developments — and knowing the traditional resort model is no longer feasible – the region is looking for an alternative solution.
One proposal put forth by the District at a public meeting in November suggested a 50/50 model, requiring half of a new development’s units enter a rental pool while the other 50 per cent be allowed for exclusive use.
The proposal was strongly opposed by the community.
READ: Toronto Condo Developers Tell You Where They’d Buy Right Now — If They Couldn’t Choose Their Own Projects
While another resolution is found, projects in Minett have been frozen for an initial 12-month period, allowing a steering committee time to consider the issue further. The committee will look at roads, traffic patterns and potential long-term environmental issues, as well as the economic concerns, says Muskoka Lakes Mayor Donald Furniss.
“I think that’s an appropriate process to go through,” adds Furniss, who has previously expressed the need for resort redevelopment in the region.
“You’ve got all these compromises that I think need to be considered, and I think this review committee will look at all of that.