BRACEBRIDGE — Inside a dark trailer on the banks of the Muskoka River, Shelly and David Burman are coming to grips with a grim reality.
They may be homeless in just two month’s time.
For the past 14 years, the Burmans’ 1,500-square-foot trailer has been the only home they could afford. As retirees, they live on a combined income of just $1,700 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program. David is battling leukemia. As his wife and primary caregiver, Shelly suffers from depression.
The Burmans are living in the midst of a Town of Bracebridge crackdown on illegal properties on Cedar Shores, a private road that runs off Cedar Farm Lane. The crackdown is affecting 31 of 52 property owners in the area, most of whom are seasonal residents. However, the Burmans are one of three families who live there year-round.
In a series of letters that started arriving last August, the town told the Burmans that trailers are not allowed to be used for more than 60 days a year in the area, citing municipal bylaws. The Burmans were also told their home is illegally situated within a flood plain.
Deputy Mayor Rick Maloney, who has personally been in contact with the Burmans, said the issue is about the safety of residents, but building staff has been bogged down by other cases over the years until recently.
“There has been varying degrees historically of effort on the part of the town to get these properties in line … way before I was even on council,” he said. “But what would happen was they would start a process and start looking at addressing issues on Cedar Shores, and other things got in the way that took the resources away from there.”
To keep living in their home year-round, the town says the Burmans will need to hire contractors to do a survey and file a new site plan application.
They are expenses the Burmans cannot afford.
“To get a new (site plan application) they want you to do a survey, which costs about $1,800,” said Shelly. “Then they want you to do your site plan, which is $650.”
The couple says they recently approached the Ontario Disability Support Program to help pay for the costs, but were denied additional assistance.
“We have no money,” said David. “We get $1,700 a month for gas, insurance, heat and hydro, we can’t afford even to tear it down.”
Even if they could pay for the survey and site plan application, the Burmans say they must also contend with the fact that the town has deemed their home to be in violation of the Building Code. They believe this means they’ll eventually have to tear down their trailer to build a new home at a significant cost.
With cigarettes in hand on a warm February afternoon, the Burmans gingerly sift through paperwork received from the town, reminding them time and again that their home’s future is uncertain.
There’s a first notice. A second notice. And a third has recently arrived. They have until May 1 to start meeting the town’s demands.
Although David estimates their land is worth $250,000, he says the town’s crackdown will make it hard to find a potential buyer. The couple currently have no idea where they’ll find the cash to comply with the town’s demands, and what their options are if they cannot continue living at their home.
“It’s ridiculous what they’re trying to do to us, they’re forcing us out of our home,” said Shelly. “And they’re not saying ‘we’ll pay you off, we’ll buy your property, or that we’ll help you move.’”
While town building inspectors have visited the property and given some warnings in the past, the Burmans say they have largely been left alone.
They say it wasn’t until this past summer that the town began sending letters requiring compliance with clear deadlines.
Without significant pressure from the town, the Burmans settled increasingly into their trailer over the years, slowly turning it into a comfortable living space. Though the original trailer was only 300 square feet, they slowly added two more rooms, giving them an added 1,200 square feet of living space.
Inside, their home is lovingly furnished with hardwood floors. It features a bathroom with a shower stall and a small study. Heat comes from a wood stove in the living room, which they’ve adorned with photographs of their six children — all of whom have since grown up and moved out.
The property also contains two other trailers, which their children inhabit during visits in the summer only.
After an inspection by the Electrical Safety Authority early in the new year that set them back $300, those trailers are no longer connected to their home’s electrical supply.
As their home is located on an unmaintained road, the Burmans plow the entire length of the road with their pickup truck. Twisting and winding down toward the Muskoka River, the route to their home is particularly treacherous in winter, where a solid coating of ice makes their property difficult to access without a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Though he acknowledges the Burmans’ predicament, Bracebridge building inspector David Demerling said the town’s actions are intended to save lives. The proximity of many structures along the Muskoka River, he said, put the Burmans and other property owners at risk if the river floods.
“The biggest issue right now is health and life safety, which is what the town is concerned about,” he said. “It’s always been in the flood plain, and that’s an issue that has always been there.”
The sentiment was echoed by Maloney.
“It behooves the town to not turn a blind eye to issues when it comes to public safety,” he said. “We have a responsibility to protect the environment and the residents of Bracebridge in riverfront properties.”
Demerling said the town has had plans to deal with illegal buildings in the area as early as 2009, and that complaints about illegal structures there have been recorded since the 1980s.
So far, he said, most of the other property owners in the area have willingly cooperated by taking down illegal structures.
Demerling said although there could potentially be parts of the property where building can be permitted, they need to be proven by a survey before permanent dwellings can be constructed.
“There are properties on Cedar Shores where building permits may be permitted,” he said. “The property would be required, by the owner, to be surveyed illustrating a building envelope out of the flood plain capable of sustaining the construction of a dwelling.”
However, he said permanent dwellings need a solid foundation.
In the meantime, Demerling said the town is looking for at least some indication that the Burmans have got the ball rolling by May 1, after which formal charges could be laid.
“As long as we see something moving forward, it’s easier that way, and we can work with them,” he said.
The Burmans have a site plan application from when they bought the property in 1998, however, it has not been updated to show the additions they’ve made to their home.
So far, the Burmans have contacted a lawyer to represent them on a contingency fee, who intends to argue that their home has been “grandfathered,” as it was built before the current bylaw was passed in 2006.
“I won’t give up without a fight,” said Shelly.