Opinion: Should you join your lake association?

A group of people enjoying a barbecue By

Q: “My cottage is on a good-sized lake with a public boat launch at one end. Lately I have heard rumblings from some neighbours who want to close the launch because they feel the lake is getting dangerous and too crowded with outsiders on weekends. Now they want me to join their group. I am relatively new to cottage life and don’t want to make waves. How should I handle this?”

A: “Never volunteer for anything” is a maxim said to have originated in either the U.S. military or as some radio propaganda from “Tokyo Rose” during WWII. And it’s good advice to follow when you are being recruited to join up with activists who essentially want to privatize a public lake. Signing up to help a legitimate lake association is one thing: you do some fundraising, monitor water quality, and educate fellow members about invasive phragmites and the dreaded round goby. There is usually an AGM to attend and probably a fun barbecue or fish fry on a summer weekend. Did you notice there wasn’t any mention of shutting down public launch ramps? That’s because real lake associations generally don’t try to exclude, enrage, and earn the everlasting enmity of fellow citizen taxpayers, which is exactly what you’ll get if you throw in with this splinter group of launch-closing NIMBYs. 

Their plan is wrongheaded in so many ways that I hardly know where to begin. But let’s start with something every cottager must surely know, namely, that with very few exceptions water bodies in Canada are Crown property, owned by either the federal or provincial government. Which is to say that they are public property, open to all citizens. Even people who are not privileged enough to own a cottage and a chunk of privately held shoreline on a lake. But as I have written many times before, certain people forget this fact and start to blur the lines between public and private property. This type of cottager, and they are legion, have come to believe that they own and control everything they can see in front of their domain. They shout and shake a fist at people fishing or having a swim off a boat in “their” bay because they’ve come to believe they actually own the lake.

These days it’s pretty well known that in order to gain traction for a particular issue, you invoke environmental protection. For example, let’s say my neighbour needs a minor variance so he can build a new garage. I am opposed to the idea because instead of seeing pretty trees from my upstairs toilet, I will have to look at his ugly garage. But of course I’d sound like a jerk if I brought my true concern before town council. So instead, I talk about how runoff diversion during the spring freshet will affect near-shore fish habitat. I talk about Blanding’s turtles and milkweed and the airspeed velocity of an unladen African swallow. That sort of thing. I think your neighbours are attempting the same old trick but substituting public safety for environmental altruism. They don’t like seeing other people using their lake, especially those “outsiders” getting on the water from the boat launch. 

I guess the first thing you have to ask yourself is whether there is a problem with unsafe boating on your lake. After all, many cottage lakes have serious trouble with inexperienced boaters, reckless behaviour, impaired operation, and speeding close to shore, among other dangers. But can you single out transient boaters who use the public launch as the sole perpetrators of this bad conduct? Given that many cottage lakes without any public access whatsoever still have their fair share of bad boaters, I’m guessing it would be pretty hard to pin 100 per cent of the blame on outsiders.

In theory, a municipality could decide to remove a public launch under pressure from a group of vocal cottage owners, but in reality it would be politically disastrous for any mayor or councillor to support such an action. 

Because you are a newbie cottager and probably unaware of the subtle workings of lake-dwelling life, I will pass on a small shred of knowledge. On every lake there is a minority of people who perceive themselves as local royalty. Some have lake ties that go back a century. Others are rookies like you, but imagine themselves to be more important than other mortals. The very best way for a new cottager to identify these creatures is to get involved with the local lake association, where all manner of gossip and opinion will be shared. If you are lucky, you’ll learn about scandal and intrigue on your very own lake. Most important, you’ll learn who to avoid. (When out of earshot, all the other cottagers on the lake refer to them as “that arsehole who thinks he owns the lake.”) Supporting the closure of your lake’s public ramp will place you squarely in the same boat with said arsehole and accomplish nothing but gain the loathing of visiting boaters and the local population, also known as your other neighbours. Word will travel impossibly fast. And when the boat launch gets shut down everyone in town, from the friendly massage therapist to the assistant manager at Dollarama, will say your name and spit on the ground. Life is hard enough without making an enemy out of your plow guy or an E.R. doctor. My advice: don’t be that person.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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