Cottage Life: What Bill 23 Means for Cottage Country

How the Ontario government’s sweeping planning and development changes will play out in cottage country


For the past several years, Deborah Martin-Downs, who served as the chief administrative officer of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, has been working closely with the Township of Muskoka Lakes to update the environmental protections in its land use policies. “The township has official plans that put the environment first,” says Martin-Downs, who also served for two years as the president of the Muskoka Lakes Association. The township’s latest official plan explicitly cites goals such as maintaining a “high level of protection” for lakes and natural heritage features. “Other cottage municipalities, such as Haliburton and Kawartha Lakes, have done similar things, because without the environment, they will have nothing to offer people.”

So, in late October, when the Ontario government tabled a far-reaching omnibus bill that not only scrambled much of the province’s land-use planning rules, but also struck at the heart of environmental protections—for natural features such as wetlands, as well as the clout of conservation authorities by removing their ability to weigh in on the impact of development proposals within watersheds—Martin-Downs’ radar began to ping. “What I read in this act is a total disregard for the environment,” she said about a week after it was tabled in the Ontario legislature. (Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities, many of which were established in the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, are mandated to protect floodplains and block development on hazardous or ecologically sensitive areas within a watershed.)

The legislation, formally known as Bill 23, or the “More Homes Built Faster Act,” ostensibly aims to remove bureaucratic roadblocks that have, according to the government, allowed a housing shortage in the more built-up parts of Ontario to reach crisis proportions. House and condo prices have gone through the roof. New home starts aren’t keeping up with demographics. Rents have also skyrocketed. In order to close the gap and bring down the costs of ownership, Premier Doug Ford has said he wants to build 1.5 million new homes in a decade—an unprecedented pace of development. To accomplish this, his government has introduced legislation that effectively strip-mines the planning approvals system, removing conditions that have long rankled developers, such as consultation processes, high development charges and other fees, and regulatory requirements viewed as obstacles to growth. The problem? The new rules, mainly aimed at Ontario’s urbanized southern region, could also have far-reaching ecological consequences. The changes could affect the agricultural band surrounding the Greater Golden Horseshoe, as well as more rural regions, including the lake and recreational districts whose health depends on a range of environmental protections, from watershed conservation to rules governing phosphate loads in lakes.

In particular, the new bill removes barriers to sprawl, significantly curtails the ability of conservation authorities to protect watersheds, and eliminates third-party appeals of development applications, such as those from cottager groups. Municipalities across the province will find their planning departments facing increased pressure from the building industry to process development applications. And, as Martin-Down points out, the municipalities in rural areas are simply not equipped to handle the volumes; many don’t even have a professional planner on staff.

Planners and conservation authority officials have been studying the proposed laws since they dropped, and many say that it will be months before they have a firm understanding of what’s been put forward and how it fits into other reforms that have been set in motion, such as allowing more development in the Greenbelt around the GTA. But most agree that the act’s main impact will be a downloading of services onto ill-equipped municipalities, the neutering of the conservation authorities, the removal of opportunities for individuals to raise concerns about developments, and an erosion of standards that protect source water and limit flooding.

“I think it puts more of a burden on the municipality,” says Anthony Usher, a planning consultant who has advised many cottage associations, owners, and developers. He adds that the Bill 23 changes, as well as other planning policy reforms coming out of Queen’s Park, place a far greater onus on landowners and community associations to monitor what’s happening with their municipal councils. “Every one of those changes underlines the importance of local political action.”

Under the proposed new rules, the conservation authorities will no longer be allowed to provide municipalities with feedback on development applications, as has been common practice for almost two decades. Instead, it will fall to municipal planning departments to monitor any environmental risks.

Some conservation authorities have provided that kind of analysis to municipalities on a fee-for-service basis, often paid by the developer, so the fiscal burden for carrying out these kinds of studies now shifts to local councils—and by extension, taxpayers—which often don’t have the staff or in-house expertise to do environmental impact assessments. Furthermore, the government is proposing changes to wetland classification, and some may no longer qualify as provincially significant ecological zones. Nonetheless, they remain important environmental areas that could now face development pressure, says Tim Lanthier, the chief administrative officer of the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority. “They’ve put things into the act that expand the powers of a minister to override any regulations through a zoning order, so the stage has been set,” he says, adding that he knows of several wetlands and habitat zones within Grey Sauble’s catchment area that could be endangered. “Certainly there are some wetlands that are in contentious development areas that could be at risk.”

Usher points out that for wetlands, which help prevent or mitigate flooding and erosion, that are not designated as provincially significant, “the conservation authorities currently have some leverage to try to protect or influence their protection.” He says that if the changes pass, it will be solely on the municipalities to decide whether or not a wetland should be protected. “The conservation authorities will have little input on the planning process—they’ll be told they have to basically stick to protecting floodplains and pointing out hazard lands, and that’s it.”

The proposed changes will also significantly diminish the role of conservation authorities in protecting communities from flooding, agrees Terry Rees, the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Cottage Associations (FOCA), which has been working in recent years with Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry officials on an improved flood strategy. “We know from the insurance industry and the financial sector that we need to be much more diligent about where we allow people to build, and that includes keeping people away from natural hazards and watercourses,” he says. “Having less oversight and having more permissive building may lead us to having buildings and communities and infrastructure that are going to be at risk.”

Mark Majchrowski, the chief administrative officer for Kawartha Conservation, agrees. He points out that all this is happening at a time when cottage and rural districts, as well as conservation authorities themselves, have seen increased tourism. That dynamic will only increase with urban intensification.

“Green spaces are pretty important for development, and a lot of people flock to conservation area property,” he observes. “So conservation areas are an important element of our infrastructure as a whole.” Martin-Downs agrees: “If the pandemic told us anything, it is that people need a place to go for a walk.”

Another element of Bill 23 involves the suspension of third-party appeals and the elimination of the requirement to hold a public meeting—a move that seems aimed at restricting the ability of homeowner groups to slow development applications with appeals to the Ontario Land Tribunal. Under the proposed law, the OLT will no longer hear third-party appeals; if residents have concerns about a development, they’ll have to persuade the municipality to make an appeal on its own (which may not happen).

In lake areas, says Usher, very few applications make it to the appeal stage, and fewer make it to the OLT; most are approved by municipalities or resolved through negotiations between the parties. But by removing the right of appeal, he predicts that developers—both large and small—will have far less incentive to try to work out some kind of compromise with their neighbours.

Usher adds that there will be an indirect impact with the removal of the right to appeal, which raises the stakes for the municipal planners. “What does that mean for cottagers and for cottage associations that have lake plans and so on? Now, the municipal council is really the only decision-making point and the only check in the system.”

From her vantage point, Deborah Martin-Downs says that the new rules— which come hot on the heels of previous waves of planning reform laws promulgated by the Ford government—will merely make planning less predictable for residents, more costly for the municipalities, and riskier for the environment. “Confusion,” she says, “will reign for quite a while.”

John Lorinc writes about cities, climate, and clean technology. Follow for updates on this story as it develops.

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Request for Fall Newsletter Content

We are looking for articles of interest for our Fall newsletter.  If you want to submit an article for the WCA Summer newsletter, please contact Nanci Wakeman with your submission in WORD format by October 14. Articles should be 250-700 words, and if including photos - please provide high-resolution photos (one or more, including photo credits – who took the photo, plus captions).

Photo of - Fun with Phrag: Video Highlights WCA Members in Action

Fun with Phrag: Video Highlights WCA Members in Action

WCA is the latest member association to be showcased in GBA's Stewards of the Bay video series. As a part of the broader Guardians of the Bay initiative, this video series highlights the passion and action of our community members in their commitment to preserving the unique habitat of Georgian Bay. On Wednesday, August 16, a group led by WCA Board Member Richard Wilson set out from Snug Harbour with guides from Georgian Bay Forever (GBF) to do seasonal cutting of the phragmites stands on Franklin Island. GBF has developed a strong and effective program engaged in Georgian Bay shoreline phragmites eradication. Many of the stands they monitored and managed have been successfully eliminated. Coastal stands of phragmites can be combatted by cutting their stems just below the water surface, which effectively drowns the plant. Several years of repeated cutting have been shown as an effective method to eliminate a stand. GBA MEMBER ASSOCIATION VIDEOS The goal of this video project is both to highlight the environmental efforts of cottagers and to develop more of a sense of community among our neighbouring member associations. Click here to find videos from other GBA member associations - with topics ranging from building loon nest platforms to habitat restoration to shoreline cleanup efforts to many, many more.

Photo of - Webinar: 10 Steps to Avoid Boating Tragedy

Webinar: 10 Steps to Avoid Boating Tragedy

  TEN Boating tips to save lives Join us ONLINE - August 23 @ 10 AM Prompted by the increase in boating fatalities and accidents in recent years, MLA Director Scott Ferguson presents a live e-learning module on 10 defensive boating tips to save lives. Special guest OPP Sgt. Dave Moffatt will address Ontario boating accident stats, including victim age and gender, life jacket use, and boat size. SQL Chair Diana Piquette and the MLA’s Lawton Osler will moderate. Join us! REGISTER NOW

Photo of - Have Your Say: Important Opportunity to Comment on Pumped Storage Facility Regulations

Have Your Say: Important Opportunity to Comment on Pumped Storage Facility Regulations

TC Energy (TCE), formerly TransCanada Pipeline, has received permission to do a feasibility study for an open loop system Hydroelectric Pumped Storage Plant (PSP) on the federally owned shoreline of the Department of National Defense (DND) Training Centre in Meaford. This proposed facility has serious and potentially harmful implications for local communities, the environment and Georgian Bay’s aquatic ecosystem. Pumped Storage Project: Why Are We Concerned? The proposed pumped storage project by TC Energy threatens to cause significant disruption and permanent changes to the existing natural habitat. Save Georgian Bay is concerned that the proposed technology will cause fish mortality, water turbidity, and water and air pollution during the construction phase, and will require the installation of high-tension power lines from Meaford to Essa Township near Barrie. We believe there are many better alternatives that should be considered in place of the current one. Although the project is proposed for a site on the west coast of the Bay, the Georgian Bay Association is examining this project because we have several concerns about its environmental impact on Georgian Bay, notably an increase in fish mortality, water turbidity, water temperatures, and habitat destruction. These impacts will affect the entire Bay, and we are concerned about the precedent it will set. Have Your Say We wanted to bring an important matter to your attention regarding the proposed amendments to Ontario Regulation 53/05 and potential regulations under the Ontario Energy Board Act, 1998, specifically related to the rate regulation of certain pumped storage facilities. The Minister of Energy is currently seeking public input and feedback on these proposed changes, and your voice matters! This is a valuable opportunity for you to share your thoughts, concerns, and insights on this crucial topic. As advocates for the protection and preservation of Georgian Bay, we have a unique opportunity to voice our concerns and make a difference. Your voice matters in this crucial conversation. We encourage you to participate in the public consultation process by submitting your comments to the Minister. Your input could help shape the direction of these regulations and influence decisions that will impact the future of our energy infrastructure and its potential impact on our natural environment. To submit your comments online, please follow the guidelines provided by the Ministry on their official website: Alternatively, please click here to generate a pre-populated email. Let's work together to ensure a balanced and informed discussion on this matter. The deadline for submitting comments is 11:59 p.m. on August 24, 2023, so please don't miss this opportunity to make your voice heard. Thank you for your commitment to creating a sustainable energy future for Ontario. Together, let's continue to stand up for Georgian Bay and ensure our collective voice is heard in this critical matter.  

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2023 Newsletters

WCA Summer Newsletter August 2023 WCA Spring Newsletter May 2023 (more…)

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Open House to Discuss the Possibility of Moving to a Single Waste Site

The Township of Carling will be holding an open house to discuss the possibility of transitioning from two transfer sites to one more centrally located site. The Open House will be held: Monday, August 14 at the Carling Community Centre from 5:30 p.m.-7:00 p.m. Please drop by to learn more about why the Council for the Township of Carling is considering this option. We look forward to seeing you there.

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Dogfest 2023

  Sunday August 13, 2023 Carling Community Centre 2 West Carling Bay Road Your Dog must be Vaccinated and Leashed Registration: Aug. 13, 2023 11:00 am to 12:00 noon Dog fest show starts at 12:15 pm. Location: Grass area beside Baseball  eld. Leash up your Furry Pal for a Fun Filled Contest or come as a Spectator Additional parking South of the Baseball Diamond. Numerous Categories available to enter Any donation to PAWS will be Greatly Appreciated  

Photo of - Fun With Phrag: Volunteers Needed to Cut Invasive Phragmites on Franklin Island

Fun With Phrag: Volunteers Needed to Cut Invasive Phragmites on Franklin Island

The West Carling Association (WCA) is looking for volunteers to cut phragmites stands on the Bay on Wednesday, August 16. A group led by WCA Board Member Richard Wilson will be departing Snug Harbour on Wednesday, August 16 (Friday the 18th in the event of bad weather on the 16th), with guides from Georgian Bay Forever (GBF) to do seasonal cutting of the phragmites stands on Franklin Island. If you would be interested in helping, there is room for a few volunteers to come along. Some light physical work is involved, likely on the shore or in shallow water. Bring a life jacket, a sharpened spade shovel and work gloves. What are phragmites and why should we be concerned? Invasive phragmites are aggressive plants that spread quickly and outcompete native species for water and nutrients. Biochemicals are released from its roots into the soil to hinder the growth of surrounding plants. Identifying this invasive can be difficult due to the existence of native subspecies. Invasive phragmites generally reach heights of up to five metres and have tan stems with blue-green leaves and large, dense seed heads. It can grow so densely that it crowds out other species. If you are unaware of what it looks like, there is a large patch on Nobel Road (old Highway 69) just south of the former 559 intersection. What is being done to eliminate these invasive plants? GBF has developed a strong and effective program engaged in Georgian Bay shoreline phragmites eradication. Many of the stands they monitored and managed have been successfully eliminated. Coastal stands of phragmites can be combatted by cutting their stems just below the water surface, which effectively drowns the plant. Several years of repeated cutting have been shown as an effective method to eliminate a stand. WCA completed the first step in our efforts to eliminate these invasive plants by conducting a thorough survey of the Carling Township Coastline in mid-June, looking specifically for the presence of invasive phragmites. In all, we identified six stands, with Franklin Island, Bateau Island, and Deep Bay being the host locations. The outcome of the mapping project was reported to WCA members and Carling Council at the Annual Members Meeting on July 29. If you are interested in assisting Richard with this important project please contact Richard directly at or by phone 416-417-6833.

Photo of - Floating Home at the Centre of a Cottage Country Feud

Floating Home at the Centre of a Cottage Country Feud

“Not everyone can pay millions for lakefront property”: This man’s floating home is at the centre of a cottage country feud Joe Nimen believes his shipping-container houseboat is a masterpiece. His neighbours in Port Severn say it’s an eyesore. Now, the Ontario government is threatening to ban vessels like his from overnight stays on provincial waters


Three years ago, amateur engineer Joe Nimen got to work building his dream home: a collection of four shipping containers fashioned into a floating cottage. In Nimen’s eyes, the four-season structure is a feat of ingenuity and environmental stewardship. For his many critics in the Port Severn area, however, it’s an unsafe eyesore with no business being on the water. At the core of the conflict is whether this dwelling qualifies as a houseboat (Nimen says it does) or whether he’s simply exploiting a loophole to avoid zoning regulations and property taxes. The Ontario government recently weighed in on the conflict, announcing plans to ban floating homes from overnight stays on provincial waters. Nimen says most of the relevant waterways are federal but that he appreciates the publicity boost for his company, Life on the Bay, which makes and sells vessels like his. Here, he tells us how he built a seaworthy home, why he isn’t bothered by his critics and what he sees as the real issues in cottage country.  Let’s start with how you ended up living in this…boat? Cottage? What do you call it? We call it a floating home, but technically it’s a houseboat. It’s aways been my dream to live on the water. My parents had a cottage on Port Severn, and we would boat over in the summer. I loved the idea of a home that you could sail from Port Severn to Parry Sound or Toronto. For years, I was making plans on AutoCAD, a 3-D design software. Do you have a background in construction? I studied engineering and later did some work installing foundations for buildings and docks. In October 2020, my girlfriend, Erin, said she was sick of hearing me talk about the houseboat idea—so I knew it was time to take action. We sold our house on Lake Nipissing and used that money to fund the project, with the hope that eventually we could make similar homes to sell. The house I’m living in cost about $350,000 to make, but some of that was spent on equipment. I bought the shipping containers off Kijiji. I had to create something that could endure the winter, when the lake freezes over. It was a lot of trial error. There were nights in February when we woke up with no water because the pipes had frozen. But we got there. For those who haven’t seen it, can you describe your home and how it works? Basically, it’s two pieces, each made from two 16-metre shipping containers that sit on top of wooden barges. The first piece is our work area and garage, where we store snowmobiles, ATVs and other seasonal items. The other half is our home, plus an outdoor deck area with patio furniture and a barbecue. When we want to move, we attach the whole thing to a tugboat. Can you park it anywhere, or are there rules? We’re allowed to anchor anywhere on Crown land for up to 21 days. After that, we have to move at least 100 metres. To the best of my knowledge, most public waterways—lakes and rivers—are federally regulated. When did you first get the floating home out on the water? About two years ago. I remember sitting on my couch, having my coffee as we moved across the lake. I couldn’t believe we actually did it. It was a great day, but I guess not everyone felt that way. By the following week, we’d gotten visits from representatives of our township, the adjoining township and fire services. People were wondering, What the hell is this thing? Did you anticipate a negative reaction? When I look back, there are some things that I should have taken into consideration. At that point, it was a work in progress, so all of the mechanics were visible from the outside. It didn’t look like a nice finished home yet—it was more like a huge science project. I can see why people were a bit alarmed. Plus, the spot we chose was a high-traffic area. For me, it was sentimental: it’s near an island I visited as a kid. Do you think some cottagers might have interpreted it as you shoving your giant non-taxable flotilla in their faces? That absolutely wasn’t my intention, but I see how it may have come off that way. You mentioned visits from local authorities. What did they inquire about? I think they wanted to make sure we were following all of the rules, and to the best of my knowledge, we have been. We’ve had two safety inspections from Transport Canada, both times with no issues. For the most part, people who take the time to come aboard tend to be pleasantly surprised. I realize that not everyone is convinced, but no one has ever said anything bad to my face. Fair enough, but behind your back, people are saying that you have no business plopping your unregulated home in an area where you don’t pay property taxes. My response is that we live on a houseboat. From a categorization standpoint, it’s the same as any other cruising boat with a washroom and a kitchen. We’re federally regulated by Transport Canada, we pay to keep our boat at a marina and the marina pays property taxes. And we’re not unregulated. There is a Transport Canada building code for boats, called the Construction Standards for Small Vessels, with hundreds of rules around fire escapes, electricity, plumbing, sewage and more. We follow all of them. I’m glad you brought up sewage. Wastewater and other environmental concerns are key talking points among your critics. We have our own sewage treatment plant built into our boat. It’s been tested and approved by Environment Canada, so I’m pretty sure that’s good enough. It’s funny that all of these cottagers are talking about their environmental concerns—a big part of why I built this place is because I wanted what my parents had but didn’t want to cut down trees, dig into the land, blast the rock and disturb the squirrels. We’ve come up with a way to have all the fun of a cottage without disturbing the natural environment. So I’m not convinced that’s their real motive. Any theories about the actual source of outrage? I think there are people who are upset that they had to spend three million dollars on their cottage and we didn’t. What about the eyesore factor? The mayor of Severn called your place an “ugly sea can.” Like I said, that first summer it was a prototype. These days, it looks like most modern cottages. Your company, Life on the Bay, sells these types of vessels. How many orders have you gotten so far? We have five under construction, plus three that are paid for but not underway yet. Since this latest comment from the provincial government, my phone has been ringing off the hook. You’re referring to a recent announcement from Doug Ford, who said he’s banning floating homes from staying overnight on provincial waters. Isn’t that bad for business? I don’t think it will be. Like I said, we’re talking about federal waterways, so I’m not sure that the province has any control. But, by bringing publicity to the issue, they’re driving traffic to our website. I should really send a thank-you note. Who do you see as your target market? We get a lot of interest from people who want a cottage but can’t afford to pay two million dollars, which is what a fixer-upper in this area costs. Instead, for $700,000, you can buy a brand new three-bedroom, two-bathroom floating home. We also have even more-affordable options. Maybe you’re downsizing after retirement—How else could you get a home for $300,000? I’m not sure that bringing affordable housing to cottage country is going to help your case. I understand that there are people who want lakefront property to be exclusive, but I don’t think it’s up to them. And, honestly, I think the whole situation is being exaggerated. Yes, my boat got a lot of attention, but it’s not the out-of-control invasion some are making it out to be. If anything, what’s out of control is how all of the accessible shorelines up here are private property—not great for families who just want to spend a day on the beach. Maybe that’s the invasion we should be focused on. I’m just giving people a chance to enjoy the water.  

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