Ontario government proposes extending Rondeau Provincial Park cottage leases

Cottage Leases Photo by Shutterstock/Jay Fog

Once again, the Ontario government has decided to spare Rondeau Provincial Park cottage owners…for the time being.

On October 26, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks (MECP) proposed a two-year extension to the cottage leases in Ontario’s second-oldest provincial park. The proposal would allow owners to remain in the park until December 31, 2024. The proposal is currently open to public consultation.

The cottagers, who occupy 279 privately-owned cottages on approximately one per cent of Rondeau Provincial Park’s 8,000 acres, own their cottage structures but lease the land from the provincial government. This tenancy agreement has been in place in Rondeau since 1894 when the government first surveyed 20 cottage lots within the provincial park.

This is the third lease extension the provincial government has enacted in the last five years, and the Rondeau Cottagers Association isn’t happy about it.

“We’re quite disappointed that it’s come to this. We’re angry, we’re frustrated with the level of incompetence and intransigence in the bureaucratic field. And here we are again, another two-year temporary solution, which really just continues to forestall the problem that’s been going on for 60 years,” says Keith Graham, a director of the Rondeau Cottagers Association.

In May of 2021, the Rondeau Cottagers Association and the municipality of Chatham-Kent, which houses Rondeau Provincial Park, proposed a long-term solution to the provincial government. Chatham-Kent would pay the provincial government a lump sum and would then resell the land to the cottagers, rather than the government having to deal with 279 individual transactions.

The total value of the lots was estimated at $29.2 million. To sweeten the deal, Chatham-Kent also offered to transfer Clear Creek Conservation Area, a Carolinian forest approximately 20 kilometres from the provincial park, to the province in exchange for the 40 acres of land.

This way, cottagers would keep their properties and Chatham-Kent, which receives tax payments from the cottagers, would maintain a significant section of its tax base.

“The prior minister and his staff were very supportive of that. They thought it was a perfect solution,” Graham says. “And then I’d say it got down to the bureaucrats and nothing happened.”

Over the last several months, the government stopped answering cottagers’ calls. “They’ve been unwilling to engage in any manner,” Graham says.

The cottage leases were set to expire at the end of 2022. Up until last week, when cottagers received a letter about the short-term extension from the government, owners weren’t sure whether their cottages were going to be demolished in January.

Graham says it feels like the government is yanking them around. With no long-term solutions on the horizon, cottagers have spent the last five years deciding whether it’s worth paying to repair and upkeep their properties.

The government has been tight-lipped on future plans for the park. When asked, the MECP did not answer questions about why the government would want cottagers out of the park and what its plan was beyond December 2024. The MECP did say in an email that, “The extension will allow time to consider options for the continued leasing of cottage lots in Rondeau.”

There has been some pressure from environmentalists who were opposed to the private sale of the park land. In 2021, activist Ken Bell started an online petition lobbying the MECP to make the land public, claiming that cottagers have damaged the park’s ecosystem.

But Graham says this claim has no founding. “They don’t understand that the park was created for cottaging. It’s the only park that we’re aware of that was created for that purpose,” he says. “It’s a park that has more species of flora and fauna, more protected species, than anywhere else in the province. They’re obviously flourishing here, and our community has been here for 120 years. So, it’s pretty obvious we’re not hurting the environment.”

Approximately 10 years ago, the cottagers’ association and the provincial government conducted separate water quality tests. Both studies showed that the water was in great shape. Graham says he hoped this would show that cottagers weren’t poisoning the environment.

He also points out that demolishing cottages in the park, along with infrastructure, such as hydro lines and septic systems, would cause more damage to the environment than leaving the cottages as they are.

It seems many park users agree. During the public consultation period for the last cottage lease extension, the comments were overwhelmingly in support of cottagers staying in the park.

Over the next two years, cottagers will remain on tenterhooks waiting for the government to make a decision. From the cottagers’ perspective, Graham says buying the cottages through Chatham-Kent is still the most viable option.

“Two of the three parties want to find the solution. One part of the other party, the political leadership, knows they need to find a solution and have tried to do that in the past. Although, they never take the final step,” Graham says. “Meanwhile, the people in the middle, the bureaucrats, keep stalling things and nothing happens.”

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