It's time to abandon a draft proposal that could ease development limits around Muskoka's picturesque lakes, the region's district chair said after facing hundreds of cottagers who were worried about the environmental impact of new construction.
After decades in politics, Muskoka District Chair John Klinck said he had never faced a crowd as large as the one that packed a public meeting in the middle of Ontario's cottage country on Thursday morning. About 300 people gathered at a consultation about the District of Muskoka's growth plan for the next two decades, and the vast majority were opposed to the region's move to consider allowing the redevelopment of failed resorts into condominium complexes.
"I think the community was exceptionally clear on what they believe should be the path forward," Mr. Klinck told The Globe and Mail. "We'll undoubtedly go back to the drawing board."
People with cottages in the sprawling region, about two hours north of Toronto, said they packed Thursday's meeting over concerns about how the area's new growth plan could allow developers to build condos on the region's lakes. They expressed concern that condos, which are currently prohibited, would create dense communities that do not comply with the strict building limits imposed on the area's expansive cottage lots.
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling for the region to rewrite the draft growth plan. "Muskoka is my home and I would like it to remain the beautiful, peaceful and exclusive community that it is," one cottager, based in Oakville, Ont., wrote in opposition to the proposal.
While Muskoka's tourist economy may have been created by the proliferation of small, family-run resorts, most have failed over the past few decades. In recent years, developers had put forward plans to redevelop failed resorts into new condos and the region's planners were contemplating rules that would allow mixed residential-rental developments, easing restrictions that currently prohibit owners from staying in those units year-round.
While the new developments were supposed to be split between homes and rental units that would cater to visitors, especially during the busy summer season, some critics questioned how the region would enforce rental rules and make sure that owners weren't staying in their rental units year-round.
Local resident Janet Griffin said her concerns about any new construction were about the stress of more cars, homes and boats in the area. "We may be reaching a tipping point of overstressing the lakes as it is, and it may not be reversible. So don't kill what we have," she said after the meeting. "I'm hoping that they will now revise the official plan draft to reflect the will of the people."
Echoing her, many residents had raised concerns that a construction boom would bring in crowds of newcomers and spoil the region's natural beauty. However, where some saw an environmental risk in allowing new construction along the lakes, other locals warned that established cottagers were trying to keep out new residents and lock the lake'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.
However, Mr. Klinck, the region's highest-ranking elected official, said he would support dropping the contentious development idea and focus more of the region's growth plan on combatting climate change. "Personally, I think we have to abandon some of those draft policies," he said. "We heard the residents and associations and they suggested there was a way we could work together and come up with something palatable."
The plan, which is still in its draft phase after about 13 months of work, won't be finished before the end of 2018.
With files from Salmaan Farooqui