Ontario government proposes tightening restrictions for floating accommodations

Houseboat Photo by Shutterstock/Aleksei Kochev

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is asking the public to weigh in on proposed changes to how floating accommodations should be used on the province’s waterways.

The Ministry said it’s seen an increase in the types of vessels being used for overnight accommodation, including floating structures that resemble cottages buoyed by Styrofoam. These floating accommodations are allowed to moor on provincial land as camping units, but they can’t reside on the same tract of public land permanently. They must move every 21 days.

In March 2022, the ministry sought feedback from the public, Indigenous communities, municipalities, and other stakeholders on how floating accommodations should be used on public lands covered by water. The majority of respondents stated that current rules were too permissive, citing concerns over impacts on water quality, wastewater management, noise pollution, and lack of building permits or property taxes, among other concerns.

Based on these responses, the province has proposed making changes to the conditions that must be met when camping on water. The biggest changes include reducing the number of days someone can camp on water in one location from 21 to seven, requiring them to move to a different location at least one kilometre away, prohibiting camping within 300 metres of a developed shoreline, and redefining camping units as watercraft primarily used for navigation, excluding house-like structures on floatation systems.

The Township of Georgian Bay is one of the municipalities that’s been lobbying to have these rules changed. “They’re ugly, they pollute, they’re not subject to any of the controls that everybody else has to use, and they’re going for a free ride,” says Georgian Bay Mayor, Peter Koetsier about floating accommodations in the area.

Over the past year, he’s received multiple complaints from constituents about Live Outside the Box (LOTB), a company that manufactures floating accommodations out of shipping containers. Some of the accommodations have small motors to navigate the waterways while others use a barge to tow the structure. Koetsier says the municipality has no authority over the floating accommodations as they’re moored on provincial land. And when out on the water, which falls under federal jurisdiction, Transport Canada considers them vessels.

As vessels, the floating accommodations must follow small craft construction standards, but they don’t require a building permit from the municipality they’re being built in. They also aren’t required to pay taxes in the areas they’re moored.

“People are using it as an accommodation. If they have a fire and the fire department comes out to put out the fire, they haven’t paid a penny towards that because they haven’t paid any property taxes,” Koetsier says. “I think they should be treated just like any other accommodation and meet all the local bylaws and regulations.”

Koetsier adds that he hopes the provincial changes will help better police the floating accommodations.

Joe Nimens, owner of LOTB, says he isn’t concerned about the proposed changes. “We’re a registered manufacturer with Transport Canada,” he says. “We’ve been visited by every single government agency that has any interest in lakes or boats and invariably all of them have said: ‘You’re not breaking any rules.’”

In response to concerns over floating accommodations impacting water quality and aquatic life, Nimens says they use the same polyethylene-wrapped foam as a dock for their floatation system. All batteries, electrical systems, and septic tanks are contained above the waterline. And because the vessel has no hull, it won’t drag against the lakebed. “You could cut our house in half, you could drill 1,000 holes in it, nothing would matter. There’s no way for water to leak in to cause it to sink,” he says.

As for wastewater, Nimens says the floating accommodations use a septic system designed by Go-Green, a company based in B.C. The system breaks down the wastewater, removing any potential pollutants before releasing the water back into the lake. Environment Canada examined and approved the Go-Green system back in 2005.

“All these municipalities around us, they seem to think that what we’re doing is illegal. We haven’t had any kind of a fine, not a warning, nothing like that,” Nimens says. “We’ve sent emails to the municipalities and said, ‘You seem to have concerns. We’d like to talk to you. We’d like to find a way for us to all work together.’ But they won’t talk to us.”

Public feedback on the provincial government’s proposed changes to floating accommodations can be submitted here until April 11.

Feature Video