On a snowy afternoon, Barbara Norton looks out from her cottage veranda to Big Rideau Lake. She retired to this waterfront property in Portland, Ont. three decades ago and still loves her home.
“I am going to be 78 years old this year,” she said. “I'd like to stay here till I croak.”
Norton is among the first wave of baby boomers, sometimes dubbed the “grey tsunami,” who traded city living for cottage life when they retired. It’s an increasing trend, says a 2018 Re/Max Report on recreational real estate, notably in Ontario, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada.
On Big Rideau Lake, surrounded by three townships in eastern Ontario, the trend means increasing development and more year-round residency on the shores of a body of water linked to the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers.
Norton’s village of Portland is in the township of Rideau Lakes, where 27 per cent of the population of 10,326 as of 2016 is older than 65, and the median age (equal portion above and below) is 54.
The price of properties with water access on the Rideau Lakes jumped to a median of more than $415,000 in 2018 from $312,000 the previous year. Easy access to the city of Ottawa and Big Rideau Lake makes this an attractive spot to build.
Natural waterfront shrinking
In Tay Valley township, 50 of 264 dwellings on the lake had been converted from seasonal dwellings to permanent homes, as of November last year, according to the township’s planning department.
In the township of Drummond/North Elmsley, 130 out of 198 residences on the lake were permanent homes.
In the township of Rideau Lakes, senior planner Malcolm Norwood reported there were 1,114 properties along the lake as of 2012, the latest data available. This included residential properties, “commercial or vacant [properties], government lands, or environmentally protected areas,” he said in an email.
Local cottage association residents report an increase in individual properties being redeveloped into larger full-year homes, a trend which has sparked worries about the water.
“The property values have steadily gone up on our lake, and so the properties that are being built are more elaborate and bigger,” said Nancy Watters, a board member of the Big Rideau Lake Association (BRLA). The non-profit organization promotes best practices for keeping the environment healthy and safe and also monitors development on the lake.
Watters has owned a cottage on Big Rideau Lake for 32 years, and in that time she says she has noticed the cottaging demographic change from seasonal (summers and weekends) to permanent or year-round residents.
“Now we see my baby boomer generation retiring and building permanent homes on the lake. So you have 12 months’ usage of the lake. We are usually there on weekends and in the summers – it’s not a heavy use. Whereas, if you are there all year seven days a week, then there's a lot more use of the lake,” she said.
The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) — an organization that works to conserve, restore, develop and manage the natural resources of the Rideau Valley watershed — also says the lake has experienced swells of development in recent years.
Doug Kirkland is known to locals as “the father of the lake.” His family has been on Big Rideau Lake since the turn of the 20th century. In the last decade, Kirkland told National Observer, it’s been common to see wealthy families from Ottawa build large year-round cottages on the water.
Having grown up on the lake, he recalls “waterfront that had nothing on it other than nature and rock.”
The worry now is that the natural shorelines that ensure safe water quality may be crippled by development, while organizations protecting the lake struggle to keep up with a jurisdictional jigsaw puzzle.
Overlapping regulatory bodies appear to have lax enforcement capabilities due, in part, to a cooperative approach to reconciling problems, a shortage of inspectors, and penalties so low they don't serve as a deterrent to violating rules intended to protect the water.
On Big Rideau Lake, the clock may be ticking.
Phosphorus threatens water quality
A primary concern is the spread of phosphorus, a longtime foe of lakeside life. It’s found in fertilizers used on lawns, golf courses and in septic systems. When phosphorus leaks into the water, high levels of the chemical leads to more algae.
Blue-green algae — a type of bacteria commonly associated with algae blooms — has been linked to increased phosphorus levels in lakes. It can release a number of toxins which can endanger not only the health of the lake, but those who live around it. It can harm people and pets, causing health problems ranging from skin irritation to neurological symptoms. When algae blooms decompose in the lake, the process can lead to oxygen depletion in the lake, creating “dead zones” that kill fish and other aquatic animals.
Poorly maintained septic systems at cottages can also leach E. coli into lakes through runoff.
Mike Yee, a planner with the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, explained in an interview that development can contribute to blooms due to a “hardening” effect. This means that where concrete developments like docks and boathouses are built along the shorelines — which removes natural vegetation — water cannot be absorbed into the soil and can run directly into the lake instead.
That means pollutants are not filtered; more phosphorus enters the lake, causing weeds and algae to grow faster.
Big Rideau Lake is part of the 455 square kilometres of the Rideau Lakes sub-watershed, one of six major tributaries to the larger Rideau River watershed, an area of land that drains to a common water body.
A Rideau Valley Conservation Authority report in 2014, the most recent available, gave Big Rideau Lake an overall water quality rating of “fair.” It said the water quality is “occasionally threatened or impaired” and that “conditions sometimes depart from natural or desirable levels.” Ratings are based on levels of nutrients, dissolved oxygen, pH and water clarity.
Yee said that pollution can be diluted by the vast amount of water in the lake. That can make it appear as though there are not a lot of pollutants in large bodies of water.
In 2018, Kirkland saw algae blooms appear earlier in the season and in more places around the lake than usual.
“This year, I saw algae on the float in the first week of June. Never before,” he recalled.
Cottage association matters
Property owners along the lake have an important role to play, ensuring their shoreline remains as natural as possible.
The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority recommends all development projects be built at least 30 metres back from the shoreline — a rule enforced by the township of Rideau Lakes. This is intended to ensure that household water is absorbed into the earth before reaching the lake. Other recommendations to protect water quality are shorelines that contain natural vegetation, docks that allow fish to pass underneath and elimination of lawn fertilizers and soaps containing phosphates.
Nathan Young is an environmental sociologist at the University of Ottawa. He noted in an interview that cost-sharing programs can support environmental initiatives. Farmers and property owners can get a break through such programs to protect lakes.
The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority provides partial funding and technical expertise in shoreline naturalization, reforestation and rural clean water programs in partnerships with farms to reduce fertilizer and phosphorus runoff. Its shoreline naturalization program includes technical support and financial assistance for waterfront property owners to improve the quality of their shoreline.
Cottage associations are key to protection, too. Jesse Vermaire, a Carleton University environmental science professor, says the work of the Big Rideau Lake Association is invaluable.
“They’re serious about taking care of their lake, their environment and work hard to make that happen.”
The group traces its roots to a 1922 association formed by several families to serve as a voice for their lake. Its mission is to foster community “in a safe and healthy environment,” which in recent years has included active participation in environmental preservation.
So in 2015, when a property owner wanted to build a controversial development on the lake, the association decided to take him to court.
Who’s in charge here?
In 2015, the township of Rideau Lakes granted a waterfront cottage building applicant exclusion from three zoning bylaws because the proposal was for an undersized lot.
The township said the cottage could be built eight metres instead of the minimum 30 metres from the water; have a septic system set back only 15 metres from the water when the bylaw required 30 metres; and have a one-metre rear setback — the distance from the back of the structure to the end of the lot — when the bylaw required 7.5 metres.
The Big Rideau Lake Association took the case to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a tribunal recently disbanded by the provincial government which previously handled appeals of development-related decisions. What followed was a dispute between the OMB and Brittany Mulhern, the town planner, over planning language.
They argued first over the definition of “identified natural heritage features” — vaguely defined as features like wetlands and areas of natural and scientific interest — that if present, would require an environmental impact assessment or screening checklist. The planner argued that even if the proposed structure was on a natural heritage feature, a checklist had been completed. The OMB disagreed with the planner on both counts, saying the shoreline clearly constituted a heritage feature in the plan and that the “checklist,” comprised of only two questions, hardly qualified for that title.
However, with some adjustments and an agreement to address further issues in the site control plan, the OMB allowed the owner to move forward with the development.
The dispute illustrates the tangled web of waterfront regulations — and only within one jurisdiction.
On Big Rideau Lake, shoreline protection and waterfront development guidelines fall under the jurisdiction of three entities: the township of Rideau Lakes, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority and Parks Canada. Each body regulates a different aspect of protection and development, ranging from minor variance applications to requirements for building a dock.
Each of the three bodies has its own rules for compliance and it’s clear that overlapping regulations and a lack of funding and time to enforce them, is hurting one entity the most — the lake itself.
“No one likes red tape, but most of us, we'd rather have rules that are there to protect the lake there than not. But we find that they are unevenly applied, or not applied,” said Watters, the Big Rideau Lake Association board member.
She and others on the lake have noticed development skirting guidelines in recent years.
Mulhern, the development services manager for the township of Rideau Lakes, agrees that a policy and enforcement problem exists.
“We’re not perfect, I readily admit that, we do what we can within our jurisdictions and within the policies in place,” she says. “I admit a lot of our policies are outdated and need to be updated and we’re continuously working on updating them.”
The township is responsible for most of the southern shoreline of Big Rideau Lake. It also oversees Planning Act applications (like the minor variances that were applied for in the 2016 OMB case), upland development (anything built further above the shoreline) and boathouse construction. Each of these areas are linked to projects that could potentially harden or weaken the shoreline.
Mulhern says the township may fine residents, but tends to focus on cooperation.
“At the end of the day, we’d rather someone work with the person who’s violating the rules to bring them into compliance then to take them to court and sanction them,” she said. “It’s very unusual for us to have to go that route.”
If someone starts to build without a permit — a cottage deck near the water, for example — they will be asked to pay double the permit fee when they eventually seek one out. The township could not provide figures for the fines they do levy.
Some lake residents note that a fine may not be much of a deterrent.
“Because the fines are not big amounts, that’s part of the problem,” says Kirkland.
The issue is further compounded by the fact that the township — which serves more than 10,000 people — employs only one bylaw officer. The officer can respond to complaints, issue cease orders or request residents to apply for a zoning bylaw amendment.
Mulhern says the township gets bogged down during construction season between April and November, leaving little time to improve policies.
Ideally, Mulhern envisions updates to a host of bylaws, including those covering site plans, adjustment and planning committees, road closures and building. Most importantly, the municipality’s official plan needs a makeover, which is a priority in 2019.
All of these policy areas, Mulhern says, are related to the health of the shoreline.
The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority covers similar ground to the municipality. Where municipal planning applications — including site plan control, zoning, and minor variances — are concerned, the organization provides comments on environmental factors. When permits are issued, RVCA also checks for compliance.
But much like the township of Rideau Lakes, the conservation authority has limited ability to enforce regulations after they’re violated.
“There is one person to deal with complaints and four inspectors for 4,000 square kilometres,” regulations planner Shelley Macpherson wrote in an email. “We do our best and recognize that isn’t enough but we try very hard.”
Under the provincial Conservation Authorities Act, a charge can be laid for a summons to court with a maximum penalty of $10,000 or three months in jail. Rideau Valley Conservation Authority inspectors stress voluntary compliance, says Macpherson. No cases have been brought to court, she said.
When shorelines are involved, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority leaves compliance to Parks Canada, which shares jurisdiction over Big Rideau Lake because it is designated part of the Rideau Canal and is therefore considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“We just haven’t been implementing that portion of our regulation because Parks Canada had it under control,” Macpherson said by phone.
In 2018, Parks Canada created a park warden program for Ontario waterways. A Parks Canada spokesperson said two key priorities were identified: non-permitted works along shorelines and work not in compliance with already-issued permits.
“The addition of a dedicated park warden presence on the Ontario Waterways is very recent, and as such, we are only starting to gather data,” spokesperson Aarin Crawford said in an email.
While the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority operates on a complaint basis, the wardens are meant to be both proactive and reactive.
Looming over the gaps in jurisdictional enforcement, is the dissolution of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in April 2018. A 2016 review of the quasi-judicial body led to the replacement of the OMB by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). The government said this smaller version of the OMB would give more authority over development back to municipal councils.
The OMB had been criticized for favouring developers in urban areas. In cottaging communities like the ones in Rideau Lakes, it’s too early to tell what the impact will be.
Mulhern has just submitted her first appeal to the new LPAT, and says she finds the process confusing.
“I think there’s not a single person in Ontario who really understands how LPAT works, speaking with some of the most experienced land-use lawyers in eastern Ontario as well as some individuals at LPAT,” Mulhern said.
“I think it’s not really clear what the process is yet and how things are supposed to operate and proceed — it’s a learning curve for everyone and there’s a lot of unknowns about what we’re supposed to do.”
Kirkland, the longtime Big Rideau Lake resident known as “the father of the lake,” says the LPAT places all decision-making about planning back in the hands of the local council.
He says that although the OMB was “onerous” and “expensive,” and didn’t always rule in their favour, it gave groups like the Big Rideau Lake Association an opportunity to make their case.
“The OMB was always there as a tool, that if [the builders] stepped over the bounds too far and the township sanctioned whatever action they wanted to take, you could go to the OMB and challenge it,” he said.
These days, he is not so certain.
Editor's note: This article was produced by the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication, in collaboration with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University.