THE MUSKOKAN - If you thought your lakeside retreat was busy enough now, how would you feel if your cottage neighbours started renting out the living space above their boathouse? Or built a year-round apartment over their garage looking out on the lake?
Recent changes to Ontario’s Planning Act have raised the question of whether secondary dwelling units should be permitted on all properties, including those that line Muskoka’s lakes and rivers.
A secondary dwelling unit is a self-contained residence, complete with kitchen and bathroom, within a home or within a structure such as a garage or a boathouse that is accessory to the home. This includes basement apartments, in-law flats, or any other secondary suite.
The Strong Communities through Affordable Housing Act, 2011 made changes to the provincial Planning Act that, as of last January, make it easier to build these secondary units. The goal is to increase the availability of affordable rental units, help homeowners offset the cost of owning a home, adjust to the changing demographics of extended families, and increase urban density to better make use of services.
“What the Planning Act now requires is that municipalities permit these accessory units in single family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings, row houses (townhouses) and in ancillary structures, such as over a garage,” explained Summer Valentine, manager of planning projects for the District of Muskoka. “What the Planning Act does still allow is the flexibility for municipalities to determine where those secondary dwelling units are appropriate.”
In other words, they have to be permitted in the types of dwellings listed, but not as an automatic right in every single dwelling. “You can still, as a municipality, determine where in the municipality those would be appropriate,” said Valentine.
Currently, the district does not permit secondary dwelling units in waterfront areas. There are no immediate plans to change that.
In order to conform with the changes to the Planning Act, the proposed amendment to the district’s official plan simply extends permission for secondary dwelling units to row houses and ancillary structures, where previously they were not permitted. The official plan ammendment maintains the status quo with regards to location, continuing to limit secondary units to residential properties in urban centres, the rural area and communities. Waterfront areas are still off-limits.
However, some municipalities have expressed an interest in looking at the issue of secondary units on waterfront properties, said Valentine, so the question will be raised as part of the district’s official plan review in the coming months.
“It would certainly need to be more of a comprehensive process,” she explained. “We’d need to do additional research and make sure we fully understand the impacts on the environment, on the social-carrying capacity of lakes, those types of things. So the idea would be to deal with that question as part of our official plan review, which is a much more comprehensive process and allows for a lot more community involvement and consultation.”
Though nobody is questioning the need for more affordable housing in Muskoka, concerns have been raised over increased waterfront density if secondary units are allowed. There are concerns about the impact on water quality, such as from increased septic usage, and the social-carrying capacity of lakes, which includes boat traffic and an increase in swimmers and lake usage in general.
Muskoka’s towns and townships must conform to the district’s official plan. So they must wait for changes at the district level before they can change their own official plans and zoning bylaws.
The district has the power to simply ban secondary dwelling units from all waterfront areas. However, Valentine said they prefer not to take that step unless deemed necessary, after more research into environmental effects, public input, and the concerns of waterfront property owners.
“The district’s role would be more strategic, to provide enabling policies that could be implemented flexibly across the area municipalities,” said Valentine. “We want to leave room for that flexibility, for area municipalities to determine more specifically than we have where secondary dwelling units are appropriate in their municipality and what standards would be applied to those secondary dwelling units.”
But there are concerns that approach will create a piecemeal effect on waterbodies that are governed by various municipalities. Lake Muskoka, for example, falls under the Town of Gravenhurst, the Township of Muskoka Lakes and the Town of Bracebridge.
Valentine expects the question of uniformity across the lake to come up when the issue of secondary units on waterfront properties comes before district as part of their ongoing official plan update, which continues to 2015. Waterfront policies come up for examination in 2013, she said.
“Nothing is set in terms of dates and times,” she added, “but the reason that we wanted to do it through a more comprehensive process is it does give us a bit more time and more opportunity to involve the public.”