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Cottages stand on a lake in Muskoka on May 19, 2017.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Cottagers in Ontario's Muskoka region fear proposed changes to local bylaws would ease development limits around the area's picturesque lakes and cause a construction boom that would bring in crowds of newcomers and spoil the natural beauty.

A central concern is the future of the almost 100 resorts that dot Muskoka lakefronts. Most of the family-run resorts that have been a fixture of cottage country have struggled over the past decade and many have shut down. Developers are now eyeing failed resorts for mixed condominium-rental developments and the District of Muskoka is considering easing restrictions that prohibit owners from staying in those units year-round.

Town meetings have been packed in recent weeks and worried locals have filed petitions asking the district to slow down its work on a planning document that will guide growth for the next two decades in the sprawling municipality two hours north of Toronto.

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However, where some see an environmental risk in allowing the construction of dense new communities along lakefronts, others say cottagers are trying to keep out new residents and lock the region's development in time.

After a meeting last week over one condo development, Mayor Don Furniss of the Township of Muskoka Lakes said some of the concerns raised so far have been "exaggerated." He said the township, which is a smaller municipality within the District of Muskoka, needs to redevelop its derelict resorts and have more residents who visit throughout the year, not just in the summer months.

"Some of the residents are protective of the environment. They are concerned it'll change the character of the community and it will have an impact on the lake and traffic. Those are legitimate concerns, but some of the people do feel like they have their palace and they don't want you to have yours," Mr. Furniss told The Globe and Mail.

The District of Muskoka declined comment, citing ongoing consultations with residents.

One of the rule changes being studied by the district would allow half the units in future condo developments to be used as principal residences, while the other half would need to be in a rental pool. This would give developers an incentive to rebuild resorts while providing new rental stock for visitors, Mr. Furniss said. However, he said many people "see it as a back door" to new condo developments. The township recently proposed prohibiting condo owners from staying in their units for more than 30 days a year; however, that rule is on hold, with the mayor calling it "very onerous."

Laurie Thomson, who is part of a group of residents called Friends of Muskoka, said the environmental impact of hundreds, potentially thousands, of new residences along lakefronts has not been properly taken into account. "Our big concern is that we're headed in a direction that could have irreversible effects on our lakes," she said.

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Because the new developments would be on land zoned for commercial uses, many of the strict rules for cottages will be relaxed, Ms. Thomson said. Instead of the 60 metres of lakefront and the long setback that a plot of land meant for a cottage requires, she said some condos are being built much closer to the water and with less than four metres of waterfront each.

"If they are de facto residential units on the lake, they need to face the same restrictions," she said.

Todd Adair, a lifelong resident and realtor involved in one of the condo projects, said the experience has been frustrating. "They don't like density. It's going to increase density," he said. "It's going to allow everyone to own a slice of Muskoka and they just don't want that – that's the real issue here."

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