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Cottage country municipality holds short-term rental owner responsible for bonfire fine incurred by guests

fire with people around it Photo by fboudrias/Shutterstock

During a Minden Hills, Ont. regular council meeting on October 26, Timothy and Margaret Groves, cottage owners in the area who rent out their property, asked council to waive a fine they received from the fire department after their short-term rental guests broke a county-wide fire ban.

The Groves had rented out their property on Airbnb in June. During the stay, guests lit a bonfire breaking the recreational fire ban in effect across Haliburton County at the time.

The ban was in effect due to dry conditions and the risk of forest fire. The fire department was alerted to the bonfire and arrived at the Groves’ property, extinguishing the flame. As a result, the Groves received an invoice from the Township of Minden Hills for $809.03, citing the cost of fire department personnel and equipment.

But during the October 26 council meeting, Timothy Groves argued that this fine was unfair. At the time, Groves said he was 200 kilometres away. He added that he had not provided wood or an axe for a fire and had posted a link to the Minden Hills website on the cottage’s refrigerator so that guests could familiarise themselves with the county’s fire regulations.

“We put the onus on the person, the guest because we can’t be the police for everybody for every certain thing,” he said.

Groves became aware of the incident that same night when he checked the cottage’s security camera and saw a firefighter on scene. He called the guests to find out what was happening, and they told him about the bonfire. In response, Groves contacted Airbnb, alerting the platform that the guests had broken his house rules and were now considered trespassers.

During the council meeting, Groves argued that the fine should be paid by the guests as he wasn’t the one who set or maintained the fire. But since the invoice is in his name, he’s been unable to collect damages from Airbnb. On principle, the platform doesn’t release guests’ phone numbers or addresses, so Groves is also unable to take the guests to small claims court.

“I’m kind of stymied because I didn’t do it. I didn’t maintain it. I didn’t allow it to be maintained,” he said.

While council was sympathetic to Groves, it wasn’t swayed by his argument. “To me, the reality is that you rented your cottage. You’re responsible for it regardless of who is there,” said Coun. Ivan Ingram.

Coun. Tammy McKelvey backed Ingram, saying: “We can’t start chasing somebody we don’t know. It’s got to be homeowners.”

When brought to a vote, council denied Groves’ request to waive the fine.

When contacted, a spokesperson for the township said that any type of municipal fines incurred by short-term rental guests would likely fall to the property owner. Minden Hills is currently working with the rest of Haliburton County to establish short-term rental regulations, but at the moment nothing’s been passed.

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