Highlands East Short-Term Accommodation: In a Nutshell

Right up front, I need to apologize.  As a member of the task group assigned to investigate the issue of short-term accommodation (STA) in Highlands East, I should have shared something like this with you before the public meeting.  I did not, and the result has been a lot of misunderstanding and rumour.  I hope the following will help set things straight, so we can continue meaningful discussion about this important issue.

The Roots of our Proposal

First of all, it’s important for you to know that the other members of the task group were amazing advocates for the rental industry in the county.  The municipal representatives too were uncompromising in their support of our STAs.  I get that.  Highlands East needs the tourism and it’s good for everyone.  Personally, I believe it’s important to give urban residents the chance to experience the relative wilderness of the Haliburton Highlands who otherwise might not have access. 

From the outset, we agreed that any regulation MUST be barrier-free to STA.  One of our members went so far as to suggest we go a step further and devise our regulation to enable owners to rent their properties. To this end, our objectives were simple: (i) learn how owners run low-impact rentals; (ii) write those up as best practice guidelines; and (iii) devise a means for the municipality to constructively intervene in the rare event of a persistent problem.

With the exception of a few points of contention (see below), I think we succeeded.

The Proposed STA Regulation

Please leave the rumours behind and read with an open mind.  And remember, this was designed as a starting point, not a plan ready to be put into law.

  • -          The proposed by-law is a bare bones version of the licensing by-laws used elsewhere.  Most of these include heavy regulation, which was not for us.   
  • -          Our by-law is dead simple, based only on a self-declaration; a list of common-sense, simple conditions that you agree to when you are granted your license: smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, informing guests about garbage and recycling, noise cautions, etc.  All things that most of us do anyway when we have paying guests in our homes. 
  • -          The license package comes as a Rent-Your-Property Guide, similar to the package the Municipality delivers to new property owners.  All the information you need to get your property rented in one place.  Included, for convenience, are a sample contract and an editable Code of Conduct.
  • -          The form takes 15 mins to complete and includes only basic information about your property (e.g. number of bedrooms, max. number of guests). This is compared to municipal records, particularly septic, to make sure you don’t plan to rent a 2-bedroom cottage to 20 people.
  • -          The by-law legal text says something about inspections.  In practice, inspections would only occur in exceptional circumstances, like where someone claims to have an 8-bedroom house when municipal records show your septic bed is rated for 4. 

If you get your application in before a set deadline, the revenue-neutral (no tax-grab here) license fee of $300 is waived to give us all a chance to adjust to the new system.  In three years, you submit a renewal form that says nothing has changed and you’re good for another three years.  That’s it. 

But how is it enforced?  As with many existing by-laws, enforcement is complaints-driven.  Complaints, which must be in writing and not anonymous, are followed up only if persistent and wide spread. One uptight neighbour who complains every time you sneeze or bad luck with the occasional guest is not enough to get the municipality involved. 

However, if you are a persistent problem owner who is in it for the cash at the expense of the community, then you could lose your right to rent, as you well should.  This by-law is going to scare those people who think their right to make money supersedes your right to live in a community.  Expect them to have loud voices.

A Few Contentious Issues

There are some aspects of the regulation that are unresolved and these all have been raised in the public commentary: 

  • -          Minimum rental period on lakefront property in peak season – this was raised because of the susceptibility of lakefront property to high-turnover disturbances.  I’ve pushed for a 7-day minimum like most agencies, but many think this is too restrictive.  The task group compromised on 3 days to allow weekend rentals while helping to reduce high-turnover disturbances.    
  • -          Limit of one license per person per lake – this was added to prevent corporations from buying up lakefront property because of its high profitability. This has happened elsewhere, but this is unlikely to help so it’s on the chopping block.
  • -          Codes and certification requirements – this is hard. If you’re renting your property to strangers for profit, it really ought to be up to current safety standards but how many of us have cottages that are completely up to code?! 

A Few Bonuses

We think our plan will help owners get their properties rented.  As a seasoned owner, this might seem condescending but to the new kid on the block, renting can be a bit overwhelming.  We also think there are opportunities to boost tourism through this scheme.  For example:

  • -          marketing Highlands East’s licenced vacation properties, giving potential guests confidence in their accommodation choice.
  • -          giving owners the option of having links to on a clickable map providing access to more potential guests, particularly for local events.

Zoning By-Law Amendment

A key issue that has caused confusion is the need to amend to our existing zoning by-laws.  It’s hard to believe but currently in Highlands East and elsewhere, STAs are NOT permitted in most residential zones.  Of course, this has not been enforced but, with rental activity on the rise, if we want to rent our properties legally, our zoning by-laws must be updated with the times.  Not changed.  Just updated.

Why I think we need regulation

I’ve heard from many people who have never had any problems with rentals, which is great to hear. I’m glad problem rentals are uncommon. Unfortunately, that is not everyone’s experience.

I’ve also heard from a lot of people who tell horror stories, usually about just one property, that’s ruining life at the cottage.  It’s heartbreaking.  Houses crammed beyond capacity, rented like a motel with new people coming in several times a week, and regular lake-side parties into the wee hours of the morning. Then there are fires during bans, issues with private roads and parking, environmental concerns, etc. I know this doesn’t describe most properties but places like this DO exist.  This has been my experience.  Just one owner, who does not care about the community, causing misery for so many families and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Nothing you ask?  Municipal by-law officers are not available 24/7, I assume because of the cost. Even if they were available, what good would they be with different people several times a week? The OPP? Tying up officers in the middle of nowhere when a cottage is several kilometres off the highway down a private road is not their priority.  These problems, they’ve told me, are a municipal issue.

Like most, I’m not against renting.  Our municipality needs it.  The other owners that rent on our lake are nice, thoughtful people who don’t want their rental business to negatively impact the community and they do their best.  If occasionally there’s a noise issue, no one minds. It’s infrequent. 

If there were basic guidelines for running a rental responsibly and everyone followed them, no one would have problems with renters. Unfortunately, such guidelines aren’t readily available (yet) and even if they were, a small number of people wouldn’t follow them.

Many in opposition to regulation have argued that owners pose a bigger problem.  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, owners are a constant.  As a neighbour, you can get to know them. Worst case scenario, existing by-laws apply.    

Another argument against regulation is the position that I have the right to do anything I want on my own property.  I understand the sentiment but, unfortunately, that’s never been true.  Municipal zoning makes sure certain activities are confined to certain zones: industrial, commercial, and residential. These rules prevent your neighbour from opening a bar or a gas station next to your house.  Business activities, including STAs, can and do operate harmoniously within a community but not without parameters.

So that’s it in a nutshell.  We can have a strong and healthy rental industry while providing residents with the comfort of knowing that lives won’t be turned upside down if someone buys to rent next door. 

We can find something that works. Make sure you’re voice is heard by sending your comments to the municipality and by getting your vote in.  

Timothy James