The Fine Print: Tips for hosting a big party

Published: July 5, 2019

Cottage barbecue Photo by Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

What do you do when a noise bylaw officer arrives at your cottage wedding? “We just turned down the music and moved everyone over to the other side of the property,” says Jenny McAlpine, a wedding planner in Kelowna, B.C.

Experts such as McAlpine have useful tips for couples who want to tie the knot at their favourite place, and for families hosting reunions or other big gatherings at the cabin. Number one? Plan for the fun party stuff, but don’t forget the all-important legal work.

A permit by any other name
Depending on your province, you’ll likely need some variation of a special occasion permit (SOP) if you serve alcohol outside the cottage itself. Plan to sell the booze to help recoup costs? That will require a sales permit inside too.

You may be wondering when a barbecue for your besties becomes a special event requiring a permit. In Ontario, for example, permits are not required for private residences nor for any adjacent premises. But is a residential backyard the same as an extended cottage property? We couldn’t get a clear answer, nor could Holly Matrimony, a long-time Muskoka, Ont., wedding planner, though she’s tried over the years. “There are so many grey areas,” she says. “For the sake of the $45 SOP, I’d rather be safe than sorry. If a liquor inspector showed up, I’m positive they would want to see a permit.”

Don’t forget that you need to post a hard copy of the permit (as one couple discovered when their caterer refused to open the bar, even though the groom had the SOP on his phone). And last call will be determined by when your permit expires. If it ends at midnight (as in B.C.), you’ll need a second one for the next day to keep pouring. Also, check to see if you are required to have a certified bartender, which your caterer may be able to provide.

Bottom line: Investigate your province’s liquor laws to see what’s required. (SOPs range from $10 to $150.)

Under the big top
Holly Matrimony tipped us off to the biggest hiccup of cottage party planning: you may need a building permit for your tent. It gets worse: if you cook or have candles under your big top, you’ll have to deal with local fire codes too. In Ontario, any tent larger than 60 square metres (about 645 sq. ft.), or attached to or within three metres of a building, needs a building permit. Be prepared to present site drawings and floor plans in person to your municipality. A building permit means an inspection, so you’ll need to coordinate the inspector’s visit with your tent installation; make sure it’s up in good time the day before. B.C. cottagers, you’re off the hook. “We don’t have anything like that here,” says McAlpine.

Finally, when you’re serving alcohol outside the tent or cottage, you may need to “fence off” the area where alcohol can legally be consumed. Tiki torches or bunting draped between pretty stakes will do the trick, says Matrimony.

Bottom line: Check your local building and fire codes. Some tent companies will take care of this time-consuming process for you, and Matrimony has even done it herself for clients (one of the many benefits of hiring a wedding planner).

Liable to be important
Event planners have numerous sad tales of floods, fires, cancellations (cue those non-refundable deposits), property damage, and personal injury that would make some hosts call the whole thing off.

Be honest with your insurance company: you’re having a big party and serving alcohol. You don’t need the hassle if your cousin’s litigious boyfriend breaks his leg while tripping over a tree root at the family reunion. (By the way, if you rent out your cottage, and your renter is hosting the party, as the owner you’re still responsible.) McAlpine recommends adding coverage such as party alcohol liability through a company that specializes in event insurance.

Bottom line: “I feel like a Debbie Downer saying it: you can gamble on not having insurance or not putting permits in place, and sure, you hate paying for it,” says Matrimony, “but you’re happy to have it if you need it.”

As for those noise complaints, they fall under municipal jurisdiction. You can apply for a noise bylaw exemption in some communities, but McAlpine suggests a more personal approach. “I’ve had families with neighbours in close proximity, and they’ve just taken a case of wine over to them the week before. That usually buys people’s happiness for one evening of the year.”

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