By Michael Walmsley
On May 24th, 2022, I was given an opportunity to present to the Huntsville Town Council regarding our community’s concerns about the proliferation of short-term rental accommodations (STRAs) on Otter Lake. At the time of that deputation, the Town had issued two STRA Licenses to the owners of cottages on our lake.
I asked Council to please put a stop to the further issuing of licenses until our community and the Town could work together to address our ongoing concerns before our challenge became bigger and more insurmountable. Well, as of the writing of this commentary on July 11th, Otter Lake now has 4 licensed STRA’s with another one set for approval!
As the number of rentals has increased, so has the number of STRA By-law infractions. One particular STRA address has had five reported infractions including two for daytime burning, two for over-occupancy and one for excessive noise after 11:00 p.m. Despite the Town’s “strike rule”, (2 STRA By-law infractions by renters during a one-year period or one infraction by the owner means that the owner’s STRA License is revoked), this rental accommodation continues to operate as a licensed STRA. It certainly seems as though the STRA By-law means one thing as it’s written but a whole different reality when it comes to enforcement. Our community even convened a meeting with a By-law Officer, the councilor chairing the STRA Licensing Committee and the Town employee in charge of STRA License issuance in order to clarify the reporting procedure regarding STRA By-law infractions and to specify the types of evidence that the By-law Office requires from area residents in order to issue fines and strikes. All of the reported infractions noted above included the Town’s required evidence yet in every instance the renters were allowed to continue holidaying on our small lake. Indeed, in one instance, a Fire Official investigating a reported daylight burn at a STRA was met by the renters vehemently denying having had a fire during daylight hours (but a community member’s date/time-stamped photo of the fire refuted the renter’s lie). The STRA By-law clearly states in Section 11.1 that “No person shall hinder or obstruct, or attempt to hinder or obstruct, any Person exercising a power or performing a duty under this by-law”, yet the outright lie occurred and the renters were allowed to continue to occupy the STRA residence.
Other annoying behaviour that we have had to endure from renters these past few weeks has included incessant barking from dogs, cars exceeding the posted speed limit and ignoring the community safety signs on our private road, and a group of renters who decided to fish off the dock, catch a large number of small mouth bass (out of season and, most likely, without a fishing license), deposit the caught fish on the shore and then, after having their angling fun, throw the dead fish carcasses into the lake. These dead fish resulted in a difficult conversation that one area resident had to have with his young daughter who was in tears because of what the renters had done.
The Town openly defends the practice of issuing STRA Licenses because in their minds, without said licensing, they contend that there would be no controls on the number of “illegal” STRA’s. During a recent meeting with the mayor, I was told that the Town’s solicitors have determined that the Town may not put any cap on the number of STRA Licenses that they issue. If a person wants to operate a Short-Term Rental Accommodation, they need to fill out an application form, pass a site inspection and receive their license. By the way, if you contravene a part of the “Renter’s Code of Conduct”, don’t worry – the By-law Office seems incapable of actually “throwing any strikes”. Gosh, there do not seem to be any controls/limits on the number of “legal” STRA’s either!
The fact that licenses seem to be viewed as a form of “entitlement” for owners and agencies to operate at their own discretion and the fact that high rental fees charged to renters offer those renters a sense of “entitlement” to do as they wish (“Hey, I paid for this place and I’ll do whatever I want to do!”) appear to get lost in the Town’s interpretation of its STRA intentions.
Despite the STRA By-law stating in Section 7.2 that “The License Issuer may refuse to issue or renew a [STRA] License where: (a) there are reasonable grounds for belief that the operation of the business may be averse to the public interest”, nowhere included in the application process is there any opportunity for a neighbouring resident to voice any concerns over the operation of a Short-Term Rental Accommodation in the residence next door. In terms of zoning restrictions, it’s the Town who identifies STRA’s as a “business”, yet they issue licenses in residential areas, on the shores of fragile lake ecosystems and on private roads where the road owners are then liable for renters accessing their “vacation destination” and for owners of STRA’s, along with their rental agencies, operating their businesses on that private road!
Otter Lake is the start of the Mary Lake watershed. It is our Lake Association’s goal to do everything in our power as a community to preserve the health of our waters as they flow down into other parts of the district and beyond. We remain very cognizant of the need to practice safe septic system usage. The residences being turned into STRA “ghost hotels”, where renters operate without any supervision from the absentee landlords, jeopardize our watershed health. When Town-issued STRA occupancy limits are ignored week-after-week and renters are permitted to invite a limitless number of daily guests to share in their “vacation paradise”, the real potential for septic system overload becomes a paramount issue. The Town seems to believe that toilets are only used by overnight occupants. Where do they think people “go” during the day?
STRA’s are destroying the very fabric of our community. Residences go up for sale, new buyers pay exorbitant prices, rental agencies such as Airbnb entice these owners to “make a lot of money” by turning their new cottage into a Short-Term Rental Accommodation and the Town readily and willingly grants a license to legitimize the “business” without, seemingly, showing the resolve necessary to enforce the by-laws that they put in place to protect the community. This is what is currently transpiring on Otter Lake and, if it’s not already on your doorstep, it’s on its way!
It is time to call for the Town of Huntsville to convene a public forum so that Town councilors and employees can understand how STRA’s are undermining the lives of neighbouring residents. It is time to call for the Town of Huntsville to convene a “meeting of municipalities” in order that it can learn how other areas of the province are more successfully dealing with the proliferation of STRA’s. It is time for the whole topic of Short-Term Rental Accommodations to become a major electoral issue in the upcoming Fall Municipal Election.
Michael Walmsley is a retired Elementary School Principal and permanent resident of Huntsville and the Otter Lake community. He views watershed health and the protection of community as vitally necessary for preserving the best of Muskoka.
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