During the dark days of winter, a contractor and subcontractors working on behalf of the owner of a large property on iconic Sugarloaf Island on Lake Joseph virtually denuded a large portion of his property of trees and blasted flat a once significant rocky slope. Concerned Muskoka neighbour, Roger Oatley, started this petition in early June demanding Council compel remediation of Sugarloaf.

Sugarloaf Island prior to clearcutting and blasting.

Sugarloaf Island May 2021

The petition has garnered over 2,500 signatories. There was deep despair in our community and also outrage at what is happening in Muskoka – blatant environmental destruction and disregard for the natural beauty of Muskoka.

When alerted by concerned Lake Joseph cottagers, the Township of Muskoka Lakes issued a stop work order on Sugarloaf, which unfortunately only relates to site disturbance. Cottage construction continues unabated.

Better tools to require compliance with the rules, and stronger rules, are desperately needed.

Mr. Oatley along with resident and long time local builder Hugh Smith, and FOM and MLA director Susan Eplett delegated at last week’s Township Planning Committee meeting providing suggestions for how these unacceptable actions might be avoided in future. For delegations and committee discussion, click here (beginning at 5:13:00) and continued here. Mr. Oatley’s remarks can be found here.

Increased staffing at Township for site planning and by-law enforcement, as well as stronger consequences for breaking the rules were top of the agenda, as staff has to process an overwhelming number of planning applications and monetary penalties for infractions are not an adequate deterrent. Construction delays, meaningful remediation, instituting a licensing system for builders and subcontractors who could face consequences for by-law infractions were just some of the many ideas shared by the delegates. Click here to read Susan Eplett’s letter explaining solutions on behalf of the MLA.

Hugh Smith suggested creating a Muskoka-friendly Builders’ Alliance that can educate clients on how to develop responsibly. “At the end of the day, the clients are not the ones cutting the trees and doing the blasting – it’s the builders and the sub-contractors.”

Director of Development Services and Environmental Sustainability, David Pink, believes that it is impossible to prevent all by-law non-compliance and that the ultimate goal is to achieve a change of culture in the community through education and communication so that contravening the Township’s by-laws is not seen as the cost of doing business. The Township has instituted a user friendly on-line complaint process and increased its by-law enforcement capacity, which is a great start, but more needs to be done.

Mayor Harding recognised we have a problem but wants to understand its magnitude and is wary of a licensing system as it may be complex and have the unintended consequence of promoting illegal building with unlicensed contractors. He supports a blasting by-law and licensing blasting contractors only. He also suggested the MLA and FOM revoke membership of those who do not comply with Township by-laws!

Many Councillors are in favour of improved communication and contractor licensing.

Peter Kelley suggested that through licensing and permits we “enter into a contract with each of the developer, builders, landowner that sets out the ground rules. If you breach one bylaw, you pack up and leave the site. That way you’ve engaged everyone on the site who has a vested interest in ensuring all bylaws are adhered to. If it becomes too onerous for someone to come here and do what they want to do, there’s a lot of other places they can go.”

Allen Edwards noted “you need a licence to own a dog in TML, a license to drive a taxi, a licence for hackers and peddlers but you don’t need a licence to build a $2 or $3M cottage! I don’t see a problem with licensing.”

After a lengthy discussion, the Committee committed to seek legal advice and find meaningful deterrents to this type of behaviour.

Sugarloaf is not a one-off violation of the unwritten, implied commitment that the vast majority of property owners make when they invest and live in Muskoka – a commitment to tread lightly on the land; to think of the impact of their actions on their neighbours, the natural environment, and the lake; to build in the forest, not take down the forest to build.

There are unfortunately more and more property owners who are either unaware of or don’t care about this unwritten commitment. There are also, quite simply, more and more property owners. Scott Young, Executive Director of The Muskoka Conservancy, Muskoka’s largest land conservation organization, penned this opinion piece that speaks to this phenomenon.