After being in business for close to 150 years, one of Muskoka, Ont.’s grand resorts is coming down. Opened by Charles and Fanny Minett, Clevelands House Resort has sat nestled in Lake Rosseau’s Wallace Bay since 1883, offering guests a slice of the Muskoka lifestyle.
But the development of Clevelands House has proved a contentious subject in recent years. The property’s current zoning as a resort allows it to be more densely developed than a residential lot.
In 2007, developer Ken Fowlers bought the resort and an adjoining 1,300 acres, which included The Rock Golf Club and Wallace Bay Marina. In 2008, the Ontario Land Tribunal approved Fowlers’ plan to build a resort village that included up to 4,000 units. Fowlers first step was to build a JW Marriott hotel down the road from Clevelands House. He also had plans to refurbish the old resort but they never came to fruition because he died in 2017.
Among the community, there was some concern about the allotted density of the Clevelands House property. Four thousand units could mean a lot more boat and car traffic in the area. To ensure future development of the property was handled properly, the Township of Muskoka Lakes set up a steering committee. Involved in this committee was billionaire Mitch Goldhar. A Muskoka cottager himself, Goldhar decided to buy the Clevelands House property in 2019.
“I wasn’t really looking to get into [the resort development] business, or acquire these plans. “I was concerned about the official plan being implemented in anything remotely close to what was permitted, and quite frankly is permitted,” said Goldhar, during a community meeting in December. “In going through the legislation governing this property and looking at the context and the history, I felt there were no ways to oppose a development of a substantial scale. I hired consultants to look at what the regulations and rights were at the time, and had resolved that the only way to do it was to acquire [the property].”
Despite his earlier reservations about purchasing the resort, Goldhar is moving forward with developing the property. He and his team have worked closely with the Township of Muskoka Lakes as well as the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA), which advocates for cottagers and responsible stewardship in the area.
Together, the group determined that they needed to lower the potential development density on the property. A revised policy document is before the Ontario Land Tribunal requesting the number of potential units on the property be reduced from 4,000 to 1,700. If something happened to Goldhar, this would prevent future developers from swooping in and loading up the property with condos.
Ken Pearce, vice president of the MLA, said that the association is pleased with Mitch Goldhar’s purchase of Clevelands House because of the low-density proposal.
During the December community meeting, Goldhar unveiled the phase one proposal for the new resort village, which will encompass 190,000 square feet. As part of the village, there will be 48 cabins, a retail and restaurant space, office space; a wellness centre, including a spa and yoga, and, indoor tennis and pickleball courts.
The cabins will be owned by Goldhar and rented out. None of them will be for sale or rented through a timeshare option. “They will just be for rent, with the hope that some people will rent them for long periods,” Goldhar says.
Community members are hoping Goldhar sticks to his promise to keep the resort low-density. In the past, some developers have put up condos for purchase on resort-zoned properties.
Other questions raised during the community meeting included how sewage will be handled. Goldhar said he intends to build a sewage and water treatment plant to municipal standards, after which the municipality will assume operations.
Traffic was another concern, especially during construction. Goldhar said that his team has completed traffic studies for the development. “There will be some traffic generated but it is quite modest,” he said. “But we are sensitive to it, and we’ll do everything we can during construction to keep the roads clean, and minimize truck traffic at inappropriate times.”
Water-access cottagers rely on the marina to store their boats
Water-access-only cottagers also had lots of questions about the marina. Goldhar said that they will be remodeling the marina and increasing the number of boat slips from 125 to 215. He added they will limit the number of boats from renters to regulate boat traffic on the lake. But Goldhar didn’t have a good answer when asked what islanders who use the marina as a launch point would do during construction.
“It’s going to be a huge mess there for a while,” he said. “I haven’t completely figured out how we’re going to keep them going during construction, but we’ll try.”
Ian Newall, who’s had a cottage in the area since 1984 and served on the Township of Muskoka Lakes steering committee, said that he’s happy with phase one of the proposal. “I’m sorry to see Clevelands House go, so part of me is sentimentally regretful that it has to come to an end,” Newall said. “But on the other hand, with the phase one plans that I’ve seen so far, it’s pretty reasonable, especially compared to what Mitch Goldhar’s predecessor had planned.”
Newall did voice concerns over Goldhar personally owning the resort village. “If it’s owned by a company or some sort of structure, one would be less worried about succession. But if Mitch gets hit by a bus, what happens next? Does phase one become something else?” he said.
Newall added that plans for phase two and three of the proposal have yet to be released. There is talk of building a 50-to-100-room boutique hotel on the property, and in a mock-up of the proposal, there is an area referred to as Hillside condos.
“We still have phase two and beyond as far as whether there are any condos built,” Newall said. “Mitch has said he isn’t going to do that, even though it’s within his rights, so good on him. But that’s a lingering concern.”
With the Ontario Land Tribunal looking over the property’s new zoning regulations, Goldhar has yet to set a start date for construction. During the December meeting, he said construction will have to wait until after the tribunal makes its decision as this may trigger changes to what’s approved on the property.
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