Planning in Ontario: All land planning and development in the Province of Ontario is ultimately the responsibility of the Province, as outlined in the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS). The province through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs has delegated most of the local planning issues and regulations to each of the 444 municipalities in Ontario.

The Upper Tier Municipalities like the District of Muskoka, have a responsibility to develop an Official Plan, that incorporates the high level ideas in the PPS into a local Plan. The Muskoka Official Plan (MOP) provides policies and guidelines at a District level that cover such matters as; population growth projections, economic development, water and waste water treatment, housing, intensification, land use designations, transportation, employment, climate change and the environment.

If you have not read the most recent draft of the Muskoka Official Plan, I strongly suggest you read the MOP in it’s entirety to comprehend the full impact of this OP’s on our municipality and your own property. Resorts are only one facet of the total plan.

The District of Muskoka also has District wide responsibility for all plans of subdivision and plans of condominium. The District also reviews all proposed changes in the lower tiers and provides comments

The six Lower Tier Municipalities in Muskoka, such as the Township of Muskoka Lakes (TML) are obligated by the Planning Act to prepare an Official Plan. This was formerly prepared every five years, it is now done every 10 years. The TML will start their review process and rewriting of the OP in 2019. The Lower Tier municipalities must follow the guidelines and policies in the District Official Plan and the Provincial Policy Statement. However, they can be more prescriptive and restrictive than the District OP. The Lower Tiers also have responsibility for the preparation and enforcement of zoning by laws. These are the regulations that control the size, location, use, lot coverage density and types of buildings that can be constructed. The TML also has responsibility for consent applications and enforcement of non-compliance matters. Each lower tier also has responsibility for building permits and inspections to ensure structures are constructed to meet or exceed local and provincial building codes.

The Township of Muskoka Lakes Comprehensive Zoning By-Law: The TML spent over six years with substantial public input to review and develop a new Comprehensive Zoning By- Law 2014 -14, to replace the previous By Law 1987-87. This new by- law was approved in 2016 by the Ontario Municipal Board, after the Township worked through over 140 issues raised by the public and the District.

The Township Zoning By-Laws are designed to establish types of zoning on each property or portion of a property in Muskoka Lakes. The zoning will define both the uses assigned to the property i.e. waterfront, residential, agricultural, commercial and environmentally protected etc. . There are at least 50 different zoning classifications in the TML.

The zoning assigned to a property, will also determine, the type of activities permitted, lot coverage, set backs and types, size and number of building structures etc..

Resort Commercial Zoned Properties: Resorts have been part of the fabric of Muskoka since the 1860’s. The District and Township Official plans recognize the importance of resorts to the tourist economy of Muskoka. Since the end of WWII, the number of resorts in Muskoka have declined from over 500 to about 100 today. The reasons are many; i.e. the improvement in road infrastructure, expansion of cottage property ownership, development of jet planes, retirement of owner operators with the lack of economic viability being at the top of the list.

Many resorts have been downzoned, i.e. Royal Muskoka Island and Milford Manor to cottage lots, some have been converted to fractional ownership i.e. Pinelands/The Muskokan and some others have retained the zoning, but are really no longer open to the traveling public i.e. Ferndale and Woodington House. Council has been very reluctant to downzone properties that are integral to the Townships economy, as it is very unlikely that existing properties would be rezoned for resort commercial uses to replace those that are lost. In fact, the Township’s Official Plan now identifies resorts as employment lands, making it very difficult for resorts to downzone.

About 20 years ago some of the existing resorts were identified by a few developers to have potential for redevelopment into a product and format that the younger vacationing public found appealing. Today, almost every resort in North America and even large hotels have a real estate component. The days of a single operator or large corporation owning an entire resort have departed with the pterodactyls. The reality today is that individual resort units are sold to investor/owners for both recreation and investment.

The redevelopment of the old Tamwood Lodge and Aston Villa properties, into Villas of Muskoka and Touchstone are 2 examples on Lake Muskoka. There are no other current redevelopments in the Township on Lake Muskoka. On Lake Joseph, two sites, Sherwood Inn and Elgin House/The Lake Joe Club are only contemplating redevelopment.

THE MINETT RESORT VILLAGE: Lake Rosseau has two nodes of redevelopment. A small one in Windermere and the largest one in Muskoka Lakes, is the proposed Resort Village of Minett. This was approved in 2008 by the OMB, via Minutes of Settlement (MOS) with the four parties objecting to the concept of a Resort Village that would encompass the former Paignton House, Lakeside Lodge and Cleveland House properties, plus part of The Rock Golf Course property and Wallace Marina. These four parties indicated they were “content” with the Minutes of Settlement, allowing for up to 3300 units on this 350 acre property. The District of Muskoka and Muskoka Lakes made the required amendments to their official plans in 2008.

This Fall the developers held a public information session in Minett where they rolled out their current plan to reduce the size of the development to 1400 units. Some of this project is completed or under construction as we speak i.e. Rosseau/Red Leaves and Lakeside/Legacy. It is expected that completion of the resort village will be a very long term phased development.

Currently these projects have complied with the TML zoning by-laws concerning density/lot coverage. Lot coverage can vary, but for Legacy and Villas it is 10% the same as most cottages on Category 1 lakes. However, with municipal services this might increase up to 35% in certain zones, similar to urban communities. Touchstone and Villas requested and were given increases in gross floor area in 2005, but no increase in lot coverage.

In the Resort Village the ultimate zoning will likely permit some number of permanent residential homes. Most of these will be remote from the lakeshore and eventually on municipal services.. This does not mean there will be a proliferation of high density permanent home communities on resort properties or around the lakes. This is the only new resort area planned with municipal services in the whole District.

Properties zoned resort commercial in non serviced areas prohibit the unit to be the full time permanent residence (home) of the unit owner. The owner when present on the property will have the same rights and obligations as any guest.

All resort commercial properties in Muskoka Lakes have undergone extensive scrutiny to ensure our environment is protected. This includes detailed studies and reports to ensure storm water is managed properly, that species at risk and fish habitats are protected. The evaluations are significantly more rigorous than any cottage property would be required to undergo. You may wish to view the Township OP amendment for the Resort Village to obtain an overview of the requirements that must be meet, before any shovels hit the ground.

Muskoka Lakes and the District Councils are committed to do everything in our power, including the refusal of development, to ensure our environment remains protected, long after the decision making process has been completed.

The public still has every opportunity to provide input and comments, during the detailed zoning of the various phases in the Resort Village development. I believe that public input is essential, before plans of subdivision and building envelopes are finalized and approved, so that meaningful compromise is achieved on the final product.

Fifty/ Fifty Proposal in the District OP: Totally separate from the TML zoning regulations are the proposals concerning the development or redevelopment of Resort Commercial Properties. The units in many resorts have depreciated in value, mainly we are told, due to the onerous conditions imposed under the mandatory rental to the travelling public provisions. One six year old unit sold for 20 cents on the dollar, just to be done with the maintenance fees. Others have been listed for over a year or more with no offers and repeated price reductions.

In addition, the new sharing economy i.e. VRBO, AirB&B etc. has allowed cottage owners to essentially operate as a resort or hotel, without any of the controls or expenses imposed on resort operators.

In an attempt to improve the economic viability of our resorts, our District Planners and our consultant have proposed that up to 50% of resort commercial units could be exempted from participating in the rental pool. Of course the owner could also elect to participate, if they so wished. The owner would also be prohibited from using the unit as his primary or principal residence (home), if not on municipal services. The other 50% would have to participate in the rental pool for the benefit of the travelling public, as they do now. It is believed that the occupancy loading at the resort (number of guests at any point in time) should be the same with the 50/50 as it is with 100 % of the units in the rental pool. In fact, I believe it might be lower, if the unit was solely owner occupied, based on the average use of a cottage. With the central rental facility for each resort, it should be quite easy to confirm when owners are present, when the unit is rented and occupied and when it is in the rental pool but vacant.

Many people have expressed concerns that there would be a proliferation of what they believe are waterfront residential communities through out Muskoka despoiling the environment, over using the lake front and overloading our infrastructure. I think this is an over exaggeration. First, there are very few properties zoned resort commercial in Muskoka Lakes and it is very unlikely any new rezoning requests will come forward and be approved. Second, most of the waterfront in resort commercial is a common area, while a few owners might be successful to obtain docking for a boat, most docks on resorts limit the time a boat can be parked. Third, most owner occupied units have less activity and lower environmental impacts than those occupied by renters (basis my observations on cottage properties that are occupied by owners and renters) – I would prefer owner occupied units near me any day of the week.

The other issue many people have expressed concern about, is the addition of permanent residential homes in the Resort Village. Long term these must have the capability to connect to municipal services when available. I would encourage you to google the Minett Resort Village and look at the current proposal prepared by Planscape. While, I too have concerns on overdevelopment and the zoning intensity of development that was approved by the OMB 10 years ago, the public and your future councils will have lots of opportunity to provide their input on the future plans of subdivision and condominium that the developer presents for the various phases of development.

These proposed changes have many hurdles to climb, including approval by committee and council and the OMB, before a new MOP is approved and these policies are implemented.

Should members of the public or groups of concerned citizens disagree with the final version of the proposed Muskoka Official Plan, they can appeal the plan to the Province via the filing of an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board. Also should the developer wish to request substantial exemptions to our current zoning by laws they also have the option to apply for exemptions and/or to appeal our decisions to the OMB.

I trust my perspective on this matter is helpful.

Don Furniss

Mayor, Township of Muskoka Lakes