Cottage country braces for the invasion of the floating home | Best of 2023

Longtime cottagers call them ‘water squatters’ and say they will transform their high-priced lakes

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This story was originally published on May 20, 2023. We are republishing as one of National Post’s best longreads of the year.

“We build dreams,” Joe Nimens says on his website, and it was always Nimens’ dream to be in Port Severn on the shores of Georgian Bay, about a two-hour drive north of Toronto, and where he’d spent his summers as a youth at a nearby family cottage. For 20 years, he’d been “thinking about this idea of a kind of four-season floating home,” and after two decades of thinking and planning and drawing and calculating, he built his prototype, Cagey Vixen, named for the “initial description I had in my mind” upon meeting his girlfriend, Erin Morano, 10 years ago.

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Cagey Vixen emerged on the waters of the Trent-Severn system more than two years ago, two repurposed shipping containers 24-metres long and six-metres wide and boasting “all the comforts of a modern home.” Nimens, 50, had been building steel structures and docks and piers, “mostly steel things,” really, for most of his life. “And now we live in a big steel box. Go figure.”

That steel box floats. Whether it’s a “vessel” or a “house” is at the heart of a growing controversy that’s touched a raw nerve in Ontario cottage country and beyond. Lakefront property owners and cottage associations say those floating structures are water squatters that could threaten the environment and the “unique character” of prime cottage country like Muskoka, a land of lakes and rivers, Precambrian rock and vast forests of green studded with multimillion-dollar vacation homes.

While public lands and waterways are available for all to enjoy, critics say these floating dwelling units have taken advantage of a Transport Canada loophole that has deemed them “vessels,” allowing owners to drop anchor on crown land on any navigable waterway. Cottage associations are concerned wastewater could end up in their lakes and rivers, that the “floating homes” are dodging municipal bylaws and property taxes, and that they’re “non-conforming,” meaning aesthetically unappealing. The latest issue of Cottage Life looks at the controversy: “Is it a vessel? Or a float home?”

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People in the area couldn’t believe this contraption

Peter Koetsier

One’s view of the water “may or may not be blocked by these ugly sea cans,” said Mike Burkett, mayor of the Township of Severn, who would very much like Transport Canada to be more forthcoming and explain to municipalities its rationale “as to how did they ever label these a vessel, when they are not? They’re a floating house on water.”

The day Nimens first floated his prototype out onto the water, phones in the Township of Georgian Bay started ringing. “People in the area couldn’t believe this contraption,” said the township’s mayor, Peter Koetsier, who, on Friday morning, was heading into a virtual meeting about floating cottages. “People thought, innocently, it would be deemed illegal, and removed from the waters within a day,” Koetsier said. “Here we are, a couple of years later.”

Transport Canada’s definition of a vessel under the Canada Shipping Act 2001 is all encompassing — basically, anything that floats. Vessel is defined as a boat, ship or craft “capable of being used solely or partly for navigation” and without regard “to method or lack of propulsion.”

Nimens’ floating home made from four shipping containers is moved by tugboat from spot to spot. (Photo courtsey Live on the Bay)
Nimens’ floating home made from four shipping containers is moved by tugboat from spot to spot. (Photo courtsey Live on the Bay)

When Nimens wants to move, he latches his shipping containers together (there are four in total, two for a garage and workshop) and attaches them to a tugboat, “which actually pushes, as most tugs do.” The rig moves at about five kilometres per hour. Upon arrival at the chosen destination, “spuds” are dropped, steel spikes that lodge into the lake floor. “When we want to move, we lift the spuds (using solar-powered electric winches), cruise to our next stop, drop the spuds and enjoy the scenery,” Nimens said. He and Morano have so far kept mostly to Gloucester Pool and Little Lake, near Port Severn. “Sometimes we do this whole move (from one spot to the next) while having our morning coffee,” if the transit is less than one kilometre in distance. Their dwelling has been described as Muskoka-style, “charming shabby chic.” It’s also engineered to freeze into lake ice. The couple spent the winter at a marina in a small bay in Port Severn. “The best part is that Erin and I can sit over dinner tonight and decide whether we’re going to leave the marina this weekend or next.”

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Sometimes we do this whole move while having our morning coffee,

Joe Nimens

Since his inaugural launch, Nimens has turned his dream into a business venture. His company, Live on the Bay, is struggling to keep up with demand. Nimens has four floating homes currently under construction, including one for his first customer, Ian Wilson, now also his director of marketing. “We’ve got doctors, we’ve got lawyers, we’ve got accountants talking to us, and people working in factories that are looking for affordable accommodations,” Wilson said.

Nimens recently listed a two-bedroom, two-bathroom floor plan with a rooftop patio for $195,000 on Kijiji. “It is a floating Party! Or rent it out on Airbnb … where else can you spend $195K and start renting … and renting a really cool floating home,” read the ad. His $1.4 million “floating off grid home or cottage vessel” comes with four bedrooms, three full bathrooms, 2,000 square feet of interior space, 1,700 of exterior entertaining space including a two-car garage, rec room and den. All models are engineered to be beached or moored on or against, hard rock shorelines, and options include a self-contained septic system Wilson said they found “from a guy out in B.C.” who has been selling them for the last 20 years to Fisheries and Oceans. “It’s an actual septic system with a five-year clean out, far better than anything you’re going to have on a typical boat.” When Cagey Vixen was crafted, “the best solution we could find was an incinerating toilet,” Nimens said. “We’ve come up with something better.” The dwellings also feature rooftop solar panels “so you can be 100 per cent off grid.”

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Some cottagers, who have spent millions in real estate costs for their precious lakefront views, would prefer they were not just off grid, but off away, altogether.

“If this man is allowed to avoid lots of provincial and municipal rules and regs by simply saying he’s a ‘vessel’, we’re going to get more and more of these contraptions floating all over our various lakes,” Koetsier said. “We need to make it a political thing in Ottawa.” Organizers have a number of MPs on board, he said, and they’re working to get more to express their concerns to Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra that, “this is not acceptable.”

There are hundreds of floating homes around the world, in Holland, in Victoria Harbour, or Bluffer’s Park Marina in Scarborough, where they sit moored to a dock. They’re connected to shore sewar and water services, Koetsier said. “They pay taxes; they do have to pass certain safety and building code regulations. It’s not like there isn’t precedents around the world.”

Floating homes in Bluffers Park, Scarborough, Ontario.
Floating homes in Bluffers Park, Scarborough, Ontario.

Due to the increase in the number and types of “structures and things” on Ontario’s waters, the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry sought input from the public about “floating accommodations,” and proposed amendments to a Public Lands Act regulation related to camping on water over public land. However, the ministry recently walked back several proposed changes. Gone are proposals that would have reduced the number of days that a person could stay in one location from 21 to seven days, increasing the distance that a “camping unit” must move to different location from 100 metres to one kilometre, and prohibiting camping on water within 300 metres of a developed shoreline.

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The boating industry worried it would restrict their ability to cruise and anchor their yachts, even though cruising boats weren’t the target, Koetsier said.

No one is trying to ban float homes or float cottages, said Claude Ricks, co-chair of the Gloucester Pool Cottagers’ Association in Muskoka Lakes District. “It’s about finding a place for them,” like Bluffer’s Park, where the dwellings are essentially permanently moored in the marina.  “You can’t put a motor on it, you can’t go navigate Lake Ontario, you’ve got to park and stay there,” Ricks said.

“All we want is Transport Canada leadership to re-classify it as a floating home. We essentially want them to do whatever they need to do to save face and change this vessel to a floating home,” Ricks said.

“This isn’t about us trying to stop some guy from floating around in our lake. It’s a much bigger issue.”

Ricks and Cheryl Elliot-Fraser, president of the Gloucester Pool Cottagers’ Association, have launched a letter-writing campaign and petitions; they’re asking municipalities to look at creating resolutions “that basically say this is an untenable situation, you need to change the definition from vessel to float home, because we can’t manage it otherwise,” and are reaching out to MPs “to go cajole, knock on the door, whatever they do in Ottawa to tell (transportation minister Alghabra), ‘this is not kid stuff, their constituents are concerned. It’s a problem. You need to deal with it.’”

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Peter Kelley, mayor of Muskoka Lakes Township, said putting an accommodation on the water is an understandable response to soaring cottage and land prices. A huge part of the population will never have the opportunity to own waterfront property.

However, “we’ve tried hard through our official plan and our zoning bylaws and our bylaws, generally, to preserve the character of Muskoka,” he said.

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It’s not about regulating architectural design, or colour. The lakes have everything from the most recent glass-cube design to 135-year-old cottages, he said. “We’re talking about (being) setback from the waterfront. We’re talking about not disguising it but leaving a strong canopy of trees around the built form so that it isn’t the dominant thing you see in the landscape.

“These things (floating homes) will be naked, as it were — dropped wherever in bays and channels.”

They could also become navigational hazards if not carefully maneuvered and anchored.

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Nimens’ prototype was to prove a concept, said Wilson, his director of marketing and sales. “Is it the most beautiful thing in the world? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Just because it’s different doesn’t make it wrong. It’s still a boat

“Joe loves what he’s got here. What we’re building now is far more aesthetically pleasing,” Wilson said.

“Just because it’s different doesn’t make it wrong. It’s still a boat,” he added.

“The thing we hear all the time, ‘you’re going to park in front of my cottage. You’re going to block my lovely view,’” Wilson said. “Nobody in their right mind wants to park in front of somebody’s cottage and ruin their view. I would much rather take my vessel out, find a nice, secluded place where it’s me, myself and I, and have a wonderful weekend.”

Some customers want to be in Lake Eerie, he said. “Some people want to be in Lake Ontario. It’s not like there’s going to be three or four, or 10 or 20 of them in one spot. Nobody’s interested in that.”

To his detractors, Nimens responds, “’Why don’t you come and see us, and talk to us and tell us what your concerns are, and learn about what we’re doing, compared to what you think we might be doing?’”

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All waterways are under federal jurisdiction. “Townships have NO waters. Period,” he wrote in a follow-up email.

The whole purpose is to enjoy “what nature has built for us,” Nimens said. “You pick an island you like; you park your front deck at that island, you put these spuds down and then you step off the deck, onto the island.

“And then next week, you look across the bay and see another island you want to visit. Up go the spuds, and you sail away to the next place.” Or, at least tugged to the next place.

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