Cottage owners in Rondeau Provincial Park have proposed a plan to buy 40 acres of park land from the Ontario government.
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.
But the land leases are set to expire at the end of 2022. This is the second time the Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks (MECP) has extended the leases within the last five years. Originally, they were scheduled to expire in 2017, but the ministry is still determining what to do with the land.
According to Keith Graham, a director of the Rondeau Cottagers Association, the park was initially designed with cottagers in mind. “The government went out and advertised and went to trade shows, and even went to the U.S. to try and solicit people to come and build cottages in the park,” he says.
Then in the late 1950s to early ’60s, the government changed its mind, mandating that cottages didn’t belong in parks. Graham says the shift happened because the park was experiencing overcrowding and the government wanted to expand the amount of public land. “They took away the renewable lease structure,” Graham says, “and ever since that time, the Rondeau community has been fighting for its survival.”
To avoid having to move or demolish their cottages in the next year, the Rondeau Cottagers Association is working with Chatham-Kent City Council to purchase the 40 acres of land occupied by the cottagers from the provincial government.
As Graham explains it, the municipality of Chatham-Kent would pay the provincial government a lump sum, and would then resell the lots to the cottagers. “It makes it easier for the province, so that they don’t have to deal with 279 transactions,” he says.
The Rondeau Cottagers Association represents 90 per cent of the cottage owners in Rondeau Provincial Park, and Graham estimates that 98 per cent of their members are in support of the proposal.
The city of Chatham-Kent has also shown interest in the proposal and is willing to act as the facilitator of the transaction because the Rondeau cottage community is a major contributor to the local economy.
Graham adds that the city won’t incur any out-of-pocket expenses during the transaction. Whatever costs the city incurs such as legal fees, will be added to the cottagers’ bill, he says.
The lots range in value from $52,000 to $129,000, depending on whether they have waterfront access. The total value of all the lots is estimated at $29.2 million.
In addition to paying the provincial government $29.2 million for the land, the city of Chatham-Kent has 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.
“[Clear Creek Conservation Area] is slightly larger than the land of the cottage lots,” Graham says. “So, at the end of the day, more land would be protected.”
But not everyone is supportive of the sale. Ken Bell, an environmental activist, has started an online petition lobbying the MECP to keep the land public.
In the petition, Bell claims that the cottagers have introduced invasive species and disturbed sensitive habitats such as the eastern white pine forest.
In response, Graham argues that having to demolish the cottages or remove them would cause even more environmental destruction. He also points out that the cottagers frequently take part in initiatives to protect the park. “Rondeau is continually held up as an ecological jewel in Ontario,” he says. “We’ve been there for 125 years. How can you say we’re hurting it?”
If the transaction were to go through, Graham says the cottagers would have to abide by both park regulations and Chatham-Kent bylaws. He also says there would be rules around the types of structures built. “It’s not envisioned that you can go and tear down your cottage and build a Muskoka palace,” he says. “That’s not what the community wants. We have a very quaint community.”
Before any kind of transaction can happen, the provincial government has stated that the proposal must be subjected to Indigenous and public consultation.