Joe Nimens and his partner, Erin Morano, live in what might be described in places like Victoria, B.C., Bluffer’s Park in Toronto, or almost anywhere in the Netherlands, as a float home. The couple, however, would choose a different term.
Their 1,000-sq.-ft. dwelling, which is moored for much of the time in the Port Severn, Ont., harbour, consists of four 53-foot shipping containers that have been transformed into a home, a garage, a workshop, and outdoor kitchen. Rooftop solar panels generate electricity, a woodstove provides heat, an encapsulated polystyrene foam foundation keeps it afloat, and it has a self-contained septic system. A picture window affords a great view of the water.
“It’s like a regular house,” Nimens says, glancing out at the vista. “The furnace goes on and off, we wake up, sit and drink our coffee, and look out onto the lake. Except we just get to be a little closer to the water.”
The reason they’re able to get so close to the water, and to have this home at all, Nimens explains, is that their place is actually a vessel, as per Transport Canada criteria. But, the structure needs to be towed into place before four large “spuds”—tall metal posts—anchor it to the lake bottom. While it’s frequently parked at Port Severn, Nimens has floated the dwelling to islands on Georgian Bay or down the Trent-Severn; it’s designed to be able to fit into the locks. His invention has proven itself to be capable of navigating through some extremely narrow regulatory loopholes too.
There is a steadily escalating controversy over Nimens’s dwelling—is it a vessel or is it a float home? It’s a story about how one man’s edgy entrepreneurial ambition—Nimens’s company, LOTB (Live On The Bay), founded in 2020, is selling custom-made versions in a range of shapes and sizes—has exposed a strange black hole in the laws and regulations that govern the use of inland waterways.
An orderly description of the situation goes something like this: municipalities—in this case, the Township of Georgian Bay—regulate land use and provide services. The provincial government is responsible for lake beds and Crown land. And the federal government regulates the movement of vessels on the surface of the water, as well as some waterways, such as the Trent-Severn. So far, so good.
Nimens contends that his cottage is actually a vessel—a kind of floating RV—and therefore under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada (TC). It moves from place to place and can be moored, for example, off an unoccupied island, much like a cabin cruiser or a houseboat. He and LOTB’s director of sales, Ian Wilson, say they’ve received a marine identification number from TC, which oversees a thicket of regulations for boats of all sizes, shapes, and uses.
On the other side, Nimen’s vociferous critics, whose growing ranks include cottager associations, several rural municipalities, and now, it would seem, the Ontario government, say the structure is not a vessel but, rather, “a floating accommodation.” A Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry spokesperson defines those as “house-like structures incorporating a flotation system, primarily intended for residential or longer-term purposes and not primarily intended for, or usable in, navigation; and barges with residential units or camping facilities on top.” They say that because there is nothing propelling the structure, it can’t be considered a vessel. But the double-wrinkle here is that the Ontario government, unlike other provinces and the City of Toronto, doesn’t currently regulate float homes.
That might be changing. Earlier this year, after pressure from municipalities and cottager groups, the provincial government circulated a draft regulation to prevent “floating accommodations” from anchoring on or near Crown land—or disturbing the lake bed—for a prolonged period. It’s unclear how any regulation might be applied or policed.
Strategist Claude Ricks, who is working with the Gloucester Pool Cottagers’ Association (GPCA) in Port Severn to push for regulatory oversight of these floating accommodations, is skeptical. He doesn’t think that the new regulations the province is proposing will do much to restrain the use of floating cottages like Nimens’s. “Until these things are regulated as floating homes or residences versus vessels, [municipalities] can’t do anything about it,” he says. This is because neither the MNRF nor the township has jurisdiction over vessels, which is a classification issued by TC. “The vessel designation has to be rescinded so municipalities can do what they are supposed to do,” says Ricks.
“As we are likely to see more floating communities, I feel it is important to use the same definition of float homes as B.C. does,” adds GPCA president Cheryl Elliot-Fraser, referring to a TC policy that specifically regulates float homes in the Victoria harbour. “These standards address the construction of homes, safety measures, sewage, plumbing, flotation, and buoyancy.” (One of Nimens’s containers has an unencapsulated foam foundation, which he is in the process of enclosing to bring it in-line with Ontario legislation Bill 228)
Yet some public reaction to Joe’s home is far more visceral than this parsing of government jurisdiction suggests. “It was ugly, it was on piers, and it was parked right in front of an undeveloped island,” Township of Georgian Bay mayor Peter Koetsier recounts of his first impression. He contends that it “affected the view and the water quality.” While the aesthetics are “the least important element,” he adds, “it certainly doesn’t help Joe Nimens’s case.”
Nimens and Wilson, however, say they’ve had plenty of positive feedback, and they are currently working on six new LOTB projects. “People are looking for affordable housing,” says Nimens, citing surging prices of houses in most parts of Ontario. “We can put something on the water for $200,000.” (LOTB’s prices run from $195,000 to $1.46 million.)
There is nothing new about float homes. In many cities with harbours, deindustrialized piers, canals, and other inland waterways, floating homes are moored to dedicated docks and often evolve into compact communities that are home to people who like to live on the water. Some are repurposed older vessels like barges. Others display an increasingly wide range of architectural variation and style. In the Netherlands—a place well-known for its innovative approaches to dealing with the ever-present threat of inundation from both the North Sea and the Rhine River delta—float homes serve as a form of resilience in the face of climate change. There, they have specialized anchoring systems that allow them to rise and fall with the changing water levels. These dwellings are typically hooked up to municipal water and waste-water infrastructure and are regulated by municipal authorities. Owners pay property taxes, and benefit from the kinds of services that other homeowners do, from road access to firefighting—points that Koetsier uses to support why they should be subject to municipal oversight in the province.
Fraser and Ricks aren’t the only ones who cite environmental and water quality issues as the main causes of concern. Thomas Bain is an engineer and the president of the Eastern Georgian Bay Protective Society, which intervenes in local development applications. He cites a 1999 University of Toronto study that found high levels of pathogenic contamination from an abundance of live-aboard boats in the Georgian Bay area, largely due to the discharge of grey water. (Grey water discharge into lakes from boats and cottages is managed at the provincial and federal levels, and sometimes by municipal bylaws. The Township of Georgian Bay passed a bylaw regulating grey water in 1995.)
“I see floating cottages as an even worse unresolved problem because at least the live-aboards are constructed to some regulations and codes,” says Bain, adding that no recent water testing has been conducted specifically to assess the impact of floating accommodations like Joe Nimens’s.
For his part, Nimens says his dwelling does satisfy TC’s small craft constructon standard, “It applies to all boats built in Canada up to 80 feet long.” For example, his dwelling uses the Go Green septic system that he claims produces no black water. (A Go Green representative says they have completed testing with Environment Canada, and meet the LC50 testing requirements, which assess the concentration of a chemical in water.)
The federal government has been extremely circumspect in its explanation for designating Nimens’s dwelling. “Transport Canada does not licence, approve, or accredit small vessel manufacturers or importers,” a ministry spokesperson said in a statement. “Transport Canada acknowledges small vessel manufacturers and importers by issuing a manufacturer identification code.” GPCA member Claude Ricks, however, scoffed at Nimens’s claim that the Transport Canada process ensures that Nimens’s home has the necessary safeguards. “You could take your freakin’ bathtub and apply and get it called a vessel,” he says. “That’s how porous and bad [the application process for] vessel designation at Transport Canada is.”
He says cottage groups have banded together with the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations to encourage rural municipalities and two-dozen or so Ontario MPs to launch a full-court press on Transport Canada to categorize such dwellings as float homes. “That is the way out of this,” says Georgian Bay Township mayor Peter Koetsier, adding that such a designation allows the municipality to subject them to bylaws and provide access to services.
Indeed, if the designation gets sorted out, cottage-country municipalities can get to work doing what municipalities do best, which is providing and maintaining local infrastructure, regulating structures for safety and waste water, and collecting the property taxes that finance those activities. Such a move would also potentially pave the way for a new form of lakeside living—one that’s commonplace in waterfront cities and regions all over the world. If cottage-country municipalities in Ontario win the right to regulate float homes and decide to create places where these structures can be situated, says Koetsier, “that’s a conversation worth having.”
John Lorinc is a writer for Spacing magazine. He wrote “More Homes, But At What Cost?” in the Winter 2022 issue.