If asked the question, “is protecting the environment important?” chances are everybody will answer a resounding “yes.”
Now, if that question was phrased slightly differently: “is protecting the environment so important that you are willing to give up all your land rights?” How would you respond?
“You would have to give that answer a little more thought,” says Bob Clarke, owner of Clarke Muskoka Realty. “And I’m certain the majority of people would answer no, I’m not giving up all my rights. Most people would want balance.”
The first question was asked to residents of Muskoka Lakes during a recent Official Plan (OP) Review survey, but Bob says the second question was a more accurate representation of the facts.
Bob is one of the founders of the Our Muskoka Stakeholders Association, a collective of business owners and residents who are speaking out about proposed changes to the Muskoka Lakes Official Plan.
Bob explains that under the guise of protecting the environment there is a small, but vocal segment of property owners driving new anti-development proposals forward. Our Muskoka Stakeholders Association believes there are already sufficient bylaws and policies in place to protect the environment, but they need to be properly enforced.
Bob notes that experienced, professional Muskoka realtors and builders are very protective of the environment themselves. They just want to find a good balance.
“Some of the bylaws need tweaking, but overall, we have a good set of bylaws,” says Bob. “What we need is more teeth to our bylaws, so the bylaw officers and OPP officers can stop the yahoos from over-developing without regard for the environment.”
Public input on the Official Plan Review is being accepted over the coming months, but Bob says there is an urgency to inform property owners because the process has been underway for over a year now.
He says many of the proposed changes will be detrimental to multiple parties in the area. One of these is a bylaw which would target all lakes in the township, increasing lot frontage needed for lot severance from a minimum of 200 feet to a minimum of 300 feet. A change like this could handcuff property owners, realtors, and builders in the area.
“On top of that, they want to put in something called Recreational Carrying Capacity, or how much water activity a lake can handle before halting development,” he explains. “Those pushing for the OP changes have admitted on public record, that a random number will be used to determine capacity.”
Once a lake is at capacity, landowners would no longer be able to sever their lot to sell for income, give to children, or build upon. Bob notes that implementing Recreational Carrying Capacity as it’s currently proposed would currently freeze lot creation on more than 50 lakes.
The proposed bylaws include sections which will increase requirements – and expenses – for property owners wanting to do slight additions or renovations. These requirements may include full environmental impact studies, causation reports, and other expensive studies which are usually reserved for new builds. “Currently the township processes roughly 100 site plans a year. The proposed change could result in over 800,” Bob says. “This will require increased staff, costs and taxes.”
As well, a proposed reduction in how big a structure can be on certain sized lots would put different challenges in place.
“In extreme situations, the bylaws could require that a cottage would need to be moved to make it any bigger,” says Bob. “They would force people to tear down a perfectly good cottage, move it to 66 feet from the water, cut down trees over those 66 feet, and then rebuild. That would have far more environmental impact than simply allowing the owner to add 20 percent to their existing cottage size.”
These lot size and building size restrictions will also address site alterations for permeable and non-permeable surfaces including driveways, pathways, sports courts, stair access to the shoreline, sun decks, large decks, outside fireplaces and sitting areas.
The Our Muskoka group is concerned that these drastic modifications to the OP could ripple through the generations of both seasonal and permanent residents. Fewer lots and less development – be it new builds, renovations, or additions – will eventually result in fewer jobs and less money moving through the community.
“This isn’t just about waterfront,” says Bob. “This is about all properties, the whole community, and our economy. And while this current OP review is happening in Muskoka Lakes, it could happen anywhere in the region. Taxpayers need to be aware and stay informed.”
Our Muskoka says the township should be asking residents, “what do you want to have?” rather than simply presenting more restrictions and overreach.
“For example, what is wrong with lower-level lounges in a boat house?” asks Bob. “People bought waterfront and they want to be on it. Why can’t I have a second bunkie for my second child’s family if it’s 100-plus feet from the water?”
Bob says anyone wanting to learn more can visit www.Our-Muskoka.ca, which has more information, surveys, links to official documents, petitions and more. Sign up and you will stay informed.
“Our Muskoka is committed to compromise, to promoting controls that will protect the environment while allowing reasonable development rights,” explains Bob. “Our group is actively researching alternative approaches that have proven effects in Canada and the world to mitigate climate change and protect the environment, while allowing innovation and creative design to flourish in Muskoka.”
A public meeting will be held in June, likely by Zoom, which Our Muskoka is asking residents to attend and be heard.
TEXT CHRIS OCCHIUZZI