The Doug Ford government is aiming to slap restrictions on floating homes that are provoking controversy in Ontario’s cottage country.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry cites “an increase in the number and types of structures and things being used for overnight accommodation on Ontario’s lakes and rivers” as the reason behind proposed rule changes.
The changes would ban what the province describes as “float homes” and “barges with residential units” from overnight stays on water over public land, which includes the beds of most lakes and rivers in Ontario.
During consultations on the issue, the ministry received feedback that suggested the current rules for overnight accommodation on water are too permissive.
Graydon Smith, Ontario’s minister of natural resources, said in an interview that the intent of the proposal is to restrict large floating homes that are “outside the scope” of the boats typically seen on the province’s lakes and rivers.
“We want to get it right,” said Smith. “I do believe we’re on the right path.”
CBC News has previously reported on how cottagers and municipalities have raised concerns about shipping containers converted into floating accommodations on lakes in the Muskoka region.
Officials say the converted shipping containers are the chief target of the proposed regulation.
“The one thing we don’t want to be doing is ensnaring the traditional boating, cruising, sailing vessels that are a big part of Ontario and our tourism economy,” said Smith.
Transport Canada defines floating homes as vessels
What’s unclear is whether the proposed ban would succeed in restricting the floating shipping container homes.
That’s because Transport Canada has designated floating homes as vessels, which gives them the same rights as houseboats, motorboats or sailboats to anchor overnight in public navigable waters.
Transport Canada said in a statement that floating accommodations “are considered vessels — just like barges.”
The province’s proposed ban on floating accommodations defines them as “house-like structures incorporating a floatation system, intended for … residential or longer-term purposes and not primarily intended for, or usable in, navigation.”
Joe Nimens lives in cottage country year-round in a floating home constructed from a pair of 16-metre-long shipping containers, and is building six more for clients.
“Business is booming,” Nimens said in an interview from his floating home, docked at a marina in Port Severn, about 150 kilometres north of Toronto. “The one that we started first will be going in the water in the next few weeks.”
Nimens says he suspects his floating homes are the province’s target.
“I believe that they’re trying to discourage us from doing what we’re doing, but I don’t see any way that the proposed regulation would affect us,” he said.
“Boats come in all kinds of sizes and shapes,” said Nimens. “I don’t have any idea what distinction [the province has] in mind between a floating accommodation and a vessel.”
Cottage owner calls move ‘a lot of hand-waving’
Nimens’ critics also doubt the province’s proposed ban on floating homes will shut him down.
“We really feel that these measures are meaningless,” said Cheryl Elliot-Fraser, president of the Gloucester Pool Cottagers’ Association, representing about 400 cottage owners on the large body of water that extends northeast from Port Severn.
“We think (the Ministry of Natural Resources) is doing a lot of hand-waving,” said Claude Ricks, another member of the cottagers’ association. “They truly don’t understand the vessel designation trumps all.”
Township of Georgian Bay Mayor Peter Koetsier says he applauds the provincial government for doing what it can about the issue.
“I do appreciate the fact that they are recognizing that these floating accommodations, floating homes, whatever you like to call them, are not properly covered in the rules and regulations that currently exist,'” said Koetsier.
While Koetsier said the province’s proposed changes are part of the solution, he believes there will still be confusion over how they can operate unless Transport Canada changes its designation.