Real Estate

Cottage-country populations are booming. Are rural areas ready for the wave of new residents?

Photo illustration by Taylor Kristan

In season 4, episode 2 of the Cottage Life Podcast, we chat with long-time contributor Philip Preville about how cottage communities are adapting to the influx of both part-time and full-time cottagers. Then, we listen to an essay that reflects on cottage life at the time of Canada’s 150th anniversary that will take you right to your piece of paradise. You can listen to the entire Cottage Life Podcast collection here.

My wife, Lynn, and I purchased a cottage in November of 2019, back in the final, carefree weeks of the Before Times.

It’s not a cottage anymore.

The property we bought was unusual, the kind we never expected to encounter. The living quarters were nothing special: a modest, seven-year-old, one-storey build with a small kitchen, three bedrooms, and an open-concept living space. The location, however, was perfect for us. It was surrounded by forest with no neighbouring cottages in sight and just a short bike ride to the lake.

But it wasn’t on a rural road, nestled amid acres of wilderness. It was located in a forgotten Huntsville, Ont., subdivision six kilometres east of the city centre, a quick jaunt down Hwy. 60, and it featured the full suite of amenities and hookups: municipal water, sewer, and garbage services; plus underground electricity, phone, cable, and natural gas. All that forest was made up of dozens of undeveloped lots that had been sitting unsold for years. Our property was one of only four built parcels the entire length of the street.

At the time, we couldn’t believe our luck. We were getting all the seclusion of a rural property without the hassles of water wells, septic systems, or propane tanks. We knew that the surrounding lots would eventually get bought and built, but we expected it to happen gradually. We figured we would have this corner of Muskoka all to ourselves for another three to five years. Those three to five years lasted six months. Buyers started snapping up lots in the spring of 2020. By June, some of them were already being cleared for development. Today, there are no lots left for sale. Fresh air and birdsong have been eclipsed by the belching and beeping of backhoes. Eight new homes have been completed and eight more are under construction. None of them are modest. They are massive properties, the kind you don’t live in seasonally. The new neighbours are here for good.

I’m not complaining. It’s still a great property, and we enjoy it tremendously. Even so, the lightning pace of the metamorphosis—and the social, economic, and cultural upheaval it represents—is astonishing. That’s a lot of people pulling up stakes, churning up settled ways like an outboard in the water.

And it’s not just happening on my street. In the post-pandemic era, small communities everywhere, the kind that once welcomed cottagers for ten weeks of the summer then went quiet the rest of the year, are experiencing an influx of year-round residents. A huge chunk of economic activity is being transferred from urban to rural areas, and a whole swath of society seems to be relocating and reorganizing itself. The change is still in progress, and no one knows yet what it will look like once it settles down.

From the cottage he owns on Kasshabog Lake in Ontario’s Kawartha region, Terry Rees has a perfect vantage point on the Great Cottage-Country Migration. “There are about 600 properties on Kasshabog, but typically there would never be more than 100 families around,” he says. “Now, there’s 300 on any given day, and 500 on the weekends. And there’s more activity on the lake at all times of the year.”

Rees also happens to be the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations, so he’s been tracking the migration in communities other than his own. “It’s happening everywhere, and the pandemic has been a huge trigger,” he says. “We know from our surveys that lots of people retired and moved to the cottage—they decided, ‘I’m close enough, I’ll take the pension and go.’ Others decided that, if they’re going to work from home, they’d rather be at the lake than in a condo.”

At this moment, you’ll likely hear a similar story from municipal leaders in most rural towns across southern Ontario. “Last April, the number of ambulance calls we received was up 64 per cent from the year before,” says Carol Moffatt, the former mayor of The Township of Algonquin Highlands, near Algonquin Park, with a population of about 2,600 people scattered across its 1,000 square kilometres. “In April! That’s shoulder season. There’s not supposed to be anyone up here in April. But our year-round population had increased.”

The migration actually began before Covid. Cottage prices have been going up for years, a reflection of increased demand for properties. Rees says the changes on Kasshabog Lake have been underway for about a decade: as properties change hands, new owners invest in upgrades so they can spend more time there. Rees says the pandemic has accelerated this process, and the data bears him out. The pandemic turned a modest trend into a mass movement.

In 2021, a total of 73,500 Toronto residents packed up and moved to other parts of Ontario. Last year, that number increased to 78,100. Other large cities across Canada have experienced a similar exodus. Back before the days of remote work and Zoom meetings, those people would have moved to a nearby suburb and commuted to the office. Now, the old real estate adage “drive until you qualify” has become meaningless— without a daily commute to worry about, you can drive as far from the city as you want.

This helps explain why, from 2016 to 2021, four of Canada’s ten fastest-growing communities were located in Ontario cottage country: Wasaga Beach (population increase 20.3 per cent), Tillsonburg (17.3 per cent), Collingwood (13.8 per cent), and Woodstock (13.6 per cent). Those all happen to be “big” small towns, ranging in population from 18,000 to 47,000. They have paved roads and restaurants and big box shopping districts and hospitals. They have some ability to accommodate growth.

For smaller villages and rural areas, it’s a different story. Those communities, which have spent years worrying about their declining populations, are now dealing with a cavalcade of new residents. It looks like an answer to their prayers. In reality, it could be a mixed blessing.

When a tiny municipality like Algonquin Highlands experiences a 64 per cent increase in April ambulance calls, it’s more than just a sign of residential growth. It’s actually a wicked problem whose solution sets other variables in motion. If a municipality puts more ambulances into service, it will need to build a new ambulance bay. And it’ll need to increase winter road maintenance so that ambulances can get to their calls, which will mean more plows.

All of this assumes that an increase in shoulder-season EMS calls is stable and reliable. But it’s obviously neither of those things right now, because the migration wave is still rising. When will it peak? What if it crests and then recedes? What are the demographics of the incoming population? What are they likely to need ambulances for? Snowmobile accidents? Slips and falls? Heart attacks while shoveling snow? Just what is the community responding to here?

The same logic applies to other municipal services. The more local parks and trails get used, the more maintenance they require—and the more complaints the municipalities get when maintenance doesn’t happen promptly. When everything in a community gets used more intensively, everything needs more intensive, and more frequent, attention.

According to Rees, these are the questions that now beset Ontario’s rural councils. “Bancroft staffs all its emergency services based on the expectation that 70 per cent of the community isn’t there in the winter. That’s not the case anymore.” As the snow melts, other problems are exposed. Hastings County, which includes Bancroft, is facing an unprecedented number of building permit requests: a total of 335 were issued for homes and businesses in 2022, with a total value of more than $32 million, compared to 243 permits issued valued at just $13.5 million in 2019. “They’re getting requests for renos, new builds, additions, outbuildings, you name it,” says Rees, who speaks regularly with officials from across cottage country. “Council agendas are jampacked. They’ve got reams of complex proposals and not enough planners or staff or bylaw officers to process them all.”

That construction, as it proceeds, is going to generate lots of debris. And the new, year-round residents are going to produce lots more garbage. So when town staff aren’t processing construction permits, they’ll be scouting new dump sites, because the current one will need replacing years earlier than expected. That’s what happened in Bluewater, a rural municipality on the shores of Lake Huron that includes the town of Bayfield. In 2019, the local landfill still had an estimated six years remaining in its lifespan; by June of 2022, thanks to mountains of unexpected garbage, it only had five months left to live— a situation that prompted the local council to refuse large loads of construction waste.

And when all the construction is complete, after all those big trucks are done lumbering back and forth thousands of times on rural roads, guess what then? Those roads will all need repaving. “All roads are built to standards based on volume, speed, and load,” says Robin Jones, the mayor of Westport, Ont., a village of 750 people north of Kingston on the Rideau Canal. “Our roads aren’t built to the same standards as the 401.”

After 40 years of managed stasis, places such as Westport and Bancroft aren’t used to thinking about these things. They’re thinking about them now. “There are scanning methods that we can use to assess wear and tear and manage the roads. We’ve learned a lot,” says Jones, who is also the chair of the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association. She is bringing what they’ve learned in Westport to the ROMA conference to share with her peers.

Needless to say, all this stuff must be paid for, and no rural community has that kind of money in the bank. Towns that go quiet through the winter can function on sedate property tax rates, but as they grow into four-season communities, rate increases are among the options on the table. Many waterfront cottagers, whose properties often come with higher tax rates than those on traditional, landlocked lots, bristle at the mention of rate hikes. But the reality is that your tax rate is based upon a set of assumptions that no longer hold true: that the landfill wouldn’t run out of space so soon, the roads wouldn’t suffer so much wear and tear, the ambulance service would more or less shut down for the winter, and the municipal workforce wouldn’t have to grow to accommodate all these new demands. “When most people were only here part-time, we taxed them accordingly,” says Carol Moffatt. “Tax rates will have to go up. It’s a basic business model.”

This is how the system works: we all pay our share for the ambulance service, even if we are less likely than others to use it, so that the paramedics don’t need to ask anyone for a credit card number before rushing them to the hospital. For those who remain part-time cottagers, however, it still stings. Their use of roads and landfills isn’t going up, but there’s a good chance their taxes will.

Whether your taxes are going up or not, your property value definitely is. For nearly two decades now, as big-city real estate prices have rocketed into the stratosphere, rural villages and cottage towns have watched it unfold like a fictional TV program. Rural house prices stayed stable, priced at levels that reflected the rhythms and the workings of a rural economy. With a good, local job, you could afford a good, local home.

As buyers move in from the city, they buy their homes with city money from city jobs. The city economy is bigger, its rhythms faster, its deals fatter. The migration is injecting massive amounts outside wealth into once-insulated communities, and not all its impacts are positive. It’s driving rural prices upward, and it’s pricing locals out. According to Royal LePage, Ontario’s average waterfront recreational property price was forecasted to hit about $738,000 in 2022, up from $653,000 in 2021—and from $413,000 just five years earlier, in 2017.

The migration is also creating a shortage of housing, particularly for renters. Westport, an historic lumber mill town, has a lot of large, stately homes. “Many of them had been subdivided into rental apartments,” says mayor Robin Jones. “With prices rising, some owners recognized it was time to sell, and the buyers turned them back into single-family homes.” Westport is growing. Its restaurants and grocery stores need workers, as do all its other small businesses. But there’s nowhere for those workers to live.

The solutions aren’t obvious. It takes years to plan and build rental housing or new ambulance bays. Meanwhile, employers have begun reversing their pandemic work-from-home policies. Those who could work remotely from the cottage might get called back to the office grind, slowing growth in rural communities.

Others may well discover, after a year or two, that rural living isn’t for them. “I think there’s a natural limit to how many people can live in small rural communities year-round,” says Rees. “It can be stark in winter. There aren’t many restaurants. There are no squash courts or pools. The hospitals are far away if you need care.” Once the migration trend hits its peak, will it plateau or slide back down to earth? No one knows for sure. Not yet at least. Jones believes that, once things settle down, the migration will solve the biggest problem previously facing small towns. “This growth will ensure that rural Ontario survives,” she says.

For now the changes are still underway, and they have longtime residents concerned about the changing character of their communities, and how much urbanity will be injected into their surroundings. “The growth is not a bad thing. It’s good news and we’re proud of it,” says Andrew Sloan, the mayor of Central Elgin, which includes the bucolic lakeside village of Port Stanley—one that’s seen a fair amount of new development. “At the same time, we want the region to be able to keep its small-town character.”

Keeping that character is both a planning challenge and a cultural challenge. “I call it going from ‘cottage country’ to ‘lakeside lifestyle,’ ” says Moffatt, the former mayor of Algonquin Highlands. “And it does come with a collision of values.” Cottagers are all about teaching the kids to catch fish and chop logs. Lifestylers prefer delivery. That’s the stereotype, anyway, and to some degree it fits. “People who move from urban centres come with different expectations of what a municipality can deliver,” says Jones. Moffatt, no longer in politics, is more plain-spoken: “The generational cottagers are accustomed to the way small communities handle things. Many newcomers want things here and now. They are surprised that they might need to bring their own trash to the landfill and are upset to learn that it’s closed on Wednesdays.”

But no one believes the cultural divide will last, and that rapprochement will come sooner than later. “Our newcomers have an interest in keeping the historical character of the community,” says Sloan. “It’s part of what drew them here.” Moffatt agrees, “These are wonderful people moving into our community. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t enjoy the same things generational cottagers do.” The solution, she says, is old-fashioned cottage hospitality: everyone needs to log off Facebook, meet their new neighbours, and get involved in the community. “Once people get to know each other, they’ll sort themselves out,” says Moffat. “We just have to get them out of their echo chambers and into council chambers.”

This story originally appeared in our Mar/Apr ’23 issue.

Philip Preville lives in Peterborough, Ont. He’s an avid hiker and skier. He plans to try canoeing whitewater rapids this summer.

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