Opening Up Cottage Country

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre

Coverage of the last provincial election campaign ignored a gem-in-the-rough tossed out by the winner, Gary Doer. He promised to open up Manitoba to more cottage development. “It’s a very high priority for the premier,” the Free Press reported this May. So why has there been such weak follow-up?

This policy is a winner on egalitarian grounds. For various, often different reasons, governments have made it nearly impossible for an ordinary family to own a beach cottage. An induced shortage of supply has sparked a massive run-up in prices, putting cottages out of reach for families with modest incomes. More than eighty percent of them never see the market, passed down to other family members instead.

Our short summers make affordable access to cottage life a high priority. The value of this tradition – endless water, beautiful beaches, kids playing in the sand or fishing with Dad, water skiing and family picnics – is simply incalculable. Sunset over a Manitoba lake brings out the best in people.

At least some of them. About 35,000 Manitobans own cottages, and 15,000 campsites cater to the public. The cottagers often include extended families, but even a generous multiplier excludes more than half of Manitoba’s population from enjoying one our most important assets. How can this bounty be extended to the rest?

There’s be no doubt about the shortage. Just as a sail’s curve shows the strength of the wind, prices prove the seller’s market. Waterfront cottages at the Lake of the Woods start at a cool $225,000, a consequence of the Ontario government’s moratorium on the sale of Crown land for development. Prices at Lake Winnipeg and in the Whiteshell run from $115,000 to $150,000. Even lots at Delta Beach have gone from $20,000 to $45,000 in a twinkling. In every market, purchase costs are up between five and forty percent a year for the last five years. It’s become prohibitively expensive for the average family to own a cottage, or even a lot.

The “high priority” so far assigned to changing that will likely stop it dead. Premier Doer erred in asking Manitoba Conservation to identify the lakes on Crown land that they feel could sustain new cottages. That’s like putting a vegetarian in charge of selling at the meat counter. For a dozen years, that department has pursued an aggressive policy of converting wilderness land into “protected areas.” Its mission is environmental protection, and the culture shift required to make it an active agent in natural resource development is conceptually beyond its capacity.

To make its determinations, the department uses a detailed, complex and lengthy process. Unsurprisingly, the premier’s spokesman says that “no action is foreseen in the near future.” Gary Doer’s picture will likely show up on the obituary pages long before these folks liberate one cottage lot.

Both High Lake, off Falcon, and the Lac Du Bonnet area need no more study. They offer prime locations for more low-intensity cottage development, as do Nopiming Park some lakes in the Whiteshell, and up the east side of Lake Winnipeg. Existing summer homes in similar, nearby locales have proven eco-friendly. All Manitoba Conservation needs to do is mandate reliable water and sewage tank systems, which are inexpensive. Nor is it any mystery where other, existing uses of the resource may be threatened. It’s the job of common law to resolve riparian conflicts.

Unfortunately, the southern basins of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, our two largest opportunities for new cottages close to the city, have both been removed from consideration. Around them, miles of pristine beaches sit empty because other government departments have jeopardized the health of their waters. The destructive ecological effects of stabilized lake levels, the shoreline erosion that speaks of Manitoba Hydro’s lust for lucrative export sales – these are the doing of officialdom, not cottage owners. Allowing rapid development of their shores is the best hope for expanding affordable cottage opportunities. Much ado is made about Manitoba’s 100,000 lakes, but most of them are locked up tight.

Here’s how the province can move quickly to capitalize on this unassailable Manitoba advantage, the cottage lifestyle. Why not give Crown lots away with a Homestead Act for cottage development? In return for a low, annual leasing fee, every family who wanted it would receive a “lakeside wilderness endowment”, with locations determined by lottery and tradable between eligible applicants. Ownership transfers beyond that would only happen after, say, five years of use, or after a permanent cottage dwelling is built, although these restrictions should be as flexible as possible. Service costs for amenities like access roads would be paid to lake associations like those in Minnesota, which operate in the same way as condominiums.

In the interim, Doer can choose a more appropriate champion for cottage country expansion. Manitoba Conservation has precisely zero benefit from opening it up, especially since revenue will flow to the consolidated fund in the foggy world of public-sector accounting. Switch the task to an agency like the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation and allow it to retain all revenues from selling cottage plots. Then plow the money back into expanding cottage infrastructure like roads, and environmental improvement.

More cottages for average Manitobans is a no-brainer. Wiser implementation will make it happen.