As unruly guests disturb the peace, Muskoka Lakes considers licences for short-term rentals –

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The Township of Muskoka Lakes, which covers a popular part of Ontario’s cottage country, is moving one step closer to clamping down on short-term rentals like Airbnbs and VRBOs in the area. 

At a public meeting Tuesday, residents will get to share their thoughts on a proposed bylaw that would require cottage owners to apply for a licence allowing them to rent their properties. The proposed bylaw classifies a short-term rental as a dwelling used as accommodation for 28 days or less.

For cottage owners like Todd Perry, whose family has enjoyed a lake in the area for seven decades, it’s about time something is done about short-term rentals. His family cottage is next to a property that’s frequently rented out.

“Your kids come up to you and say, ‘Dad, I don’t feel comfortable sitting on the dock because of the bachelor party that’s being held beside us,'” he said. “We have to deal with up to 12 or more people every weekend beside us. It’s like a commercial hotel. I go up there to relax.” 

He said they face issues like DJs blasting music, bottles and cans rolling in the water and pets running wild.

Meanwhile, some cottage owners, and rental agencies that represent them, argue the problems with short-term rentals can largely be blamed on a few owners who don’t care about preserving peace and quiet. They say bylaws like the one being proposed could lead some owners to choose not to rent their cottages, leading to economic consequences in the region. 

With the rise of apps like Airbnb and VRBO, Mayor Peter Kelley says short-term rentals are more popular than ever in Muskoka Lakes. (Daniel Thomas/CBC/Radio-Canada)

How would bylaw change short-term rentals?

The proposed bylaw would mean owners need to pay a $1,000 application and $500 inspection fee to receive a licence. The licences would then be subject to a demerit point system, meaning if 15 demerit points are accrued, a licence is revoked. 

Property owners would also only be able to list short-term rentals for half the days in a calendar year, and between Victoria Day and Labour Day, each individual stay would need to be at least seven consecutive nights.

Muskoka Mayor Peter Kelley says that would help limit unruly behaviour, which has become more of a problem as short-term rentals have become big business. He says most renters are responsible, but some are “literally running unsupervised commercial resort hotels.”

“Renting your property here, and this is probably controversial, it’s a privilege,” Kelley said. “And in order to continue to enjoy that privilege, we expect compliance with our normal bylaws for behaviour.”

Along with licence fees and rental limitations, the drafted bylaw would also require property owners to have someone close enough to respond to complaints within an hour.

Cottages are seen on a lake on a sunny day. There are two cottages, one in foreground, one in background
The new bylaw is an attempt to bring harmony between property owners and short-term renters in Muskoka Lakes. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

Renters say bylaw goes too far

Phil Harding, who works in real estate and served as mayor of Muskoka Lakes from 2018 to 2022, doesn’t think every owner who rents their cottage should have to spend money on a licence fee. 

He would rather see people forced to apply for a licence after they accrue demerit points than have everyone forced to pay upfront to rent their cottage.

“I think the opportunity to put some form of a bylaw in place is a good concept. The issue I have is that we are attacking a small problem by using a sledgehammer,” Harding said. “There’ll be a lot of unintended consequences.”

Jayne McCaw, owner of Jayne’s Luxury Rentals, which handles short-term rentals for property owners in Muskoka, says she’s already had multiple clients hesitate to list their cottages this year because of the licensing fees. 

She thinks owners renting through companies like hers should be exempt because they are licensed to operate under the travel industry act of Ontario.

McCaw agrees with aspects of the bylaw but is worried it could impact the local economy. She said for every dollar someone spends on accommodations, they spend two dollars in the local economy. 

“Say they rent for $500 a night. That means $1,000 of that extra money is not going to come into Muskoka,” she said.

But Mayor Kelley says licensing only works if all renters pay fees to cover administrative costs. 

The Muskoka Lakes Association represents 2,000 cottagers in the area and vice-president Ken Pearce said the group sees both sides of the issue. 

“Some of them have to rent their cottages to help with paying for the upkeep and the property taxes and to enable them to continue to own it,” he said, but that has often come at the expense of peace and quiet.

“For some people, it’s right next door to you. It can be terrible.”

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