There’s a battle brewing in cottage country.
About 600 cottage owners taking up a tiny fraction of land in two provincial parks — Rondeau and Algonquin — beg to differ with a provincial auditor-general’s report that the rent they pay on land leases is $6.7 million below market value.
In Rondeau, south of Chatham on Lake Erie, they’re accusing the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources of jacking up their payments as the current 21-year leases expire in 2017.
“There’s no way we’re going to pay Hollywood prices for two-bedroom wood-frame cottages,” says Brian French, president of the Rondeau Cottagers Association.
Members’ annual leases now range from $1,500 away from the lake to about $3,500 along the beach, plus $421 in annual service fees and another bill to pay about $3,000 in lieu of property taxes, plus park admission passes, he adds.
For French, that bill is now approaching $6,500 a year — as much as his parents paid for the cottage in 1966.
“We think they’re trying to price us out of the park. We’re not going to let that happen.”
In Algonquin, as at Rondeau, the cottagers who pay annual leases ranging from $600 to $4,000 depending on the location (some are more remote than others) can’t figure out how the auditor general came up with the $6.7 million figure in her annual report issued in early December. They also pay fees for trash removal and parking lot maintenance and admission to the park.
“There are a lot of variables around that in terms of what the market value might be,” says Algonquin Park Residents Association spokesman John Olsen of Oakville, who wants to iron things out.
“Our expectation is that will involve sitting down with the ministry and appropriate specialists and coming up with a fact-based rent. We have always stressed that we pay our own way . . . I can’t speculate on any possible increase”
Of all this, David Orazietti, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister, acknowledges “there’s a bit of an issue with the leaseholders.”
“Rondeau’s a bit of a different group than Algonquin. More outspoken,” adds the ministry’s Andrew Donnachie.
“The question about ‘losing money’ is only really applicable to Rondeau as we do not provide the level of services to the Algonquin cottages in part due to their remoteness.”
The Algonquin cottages scattered on about 19 lakes along the Hwy. 60 corridor often do not have electricity, and many are accessible only by boat.
Some of the cottages are owned by people who do not live in Canada but in the United States and further abroad.
Donnachie makes it clear the government feels the cottagers in both parks are getting a big break on land collectively owned by Ontarians, many of whom don’t have or can’t afford cottages.
The cottagers are paying one per cent of the land value instead of the seven per cent rate calculated by the provincial agency Infrastructure Ontario as a “fair annual return to the Crown,” says Donnachie.
“Should the Crown decide to renew the leases in 2017, an updated fee structure will be developed to ensure that cottages pay their fair share,” he adds.
The Wildlands League is opposing any extensions to the Algonquin leases, saying in a statement that the cottages “threaten ecologically sensitive shoreline” areas and “privatize what is a public good. Parks are Crown-land-owned by all Ontarians, not a special few.”
The lobby group wants all cottage leases ended and owners forced to remove the buildings and return the land to a natural state.
Concerns about the amounts paid are not new to the cottagers but were flagged in the auditor’s last report, which noted the Ministry of Natural Resources hired a private consultant to assess the net economic value of the leases 15 months ago.
“If the decision is made to renew these leases in 2017, the ministry should ensure that the lease payments are increased to at least fair market value and that the fees charged for services to the cottagers recover the ministry’s cost of providing the services,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk recommended.
She and Orazietti — who recently met with French of the Rondeau association — might not be getting any cottage invitations to either park anytime soon.
“We just feel we’re being constantly punished for having a cottage in the park,” says French, citing the new payments-in-lieu of taxes assessed this year, almost doubling his annual payouts — a cost the cottagers are fighting in court.
“We’re not wealthy people. This is very much a have-not part of Ontario,” French adds, noting factory closures in southwestern Ontario, including the pending shutdown at Heinz in Leamington.
“This is not Muskoka . . . we want a solution that’s fair for us and fair for the people of Ontario. We don’t want this park to become a rich person’s retreat.”
Olsen says the Algonquin Park cottages are not like Muskoka either, in terms of the cottage mansions seen on Lake Rosseau and similar lakes.
“We are mostly off-the-grid. There are a lot of restrictions . . . we have a light footprint on the environment.”
At Rondeau, French says cottagers are told they cannot leave their boats on the beach in front of their properties without risk of having them removed by park staff.
“When your landlord hates you and when your landlord is the provincial government they can make life pretty miserable.”