Cottage Country Challenges

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posted by Allyson Scott

I recently received a phone call from a close friend asking for some real estate advice, and the excitement in her voice was palpable.

“I think we’ve found our dream property…but you’re going to think we’re crazy!” she laughed.

She and her husband, who is an extremely talented contractor, are thinking about buying a rural property and building a home from scratch. Unlike most buyers of vacant land, they are unconcerned with the availability of utilities and public services because they want to live sustainably and off the grid. What surprised me was the news that they were looking as far away as the Gravenhurst area!

“We saw this listing last month, and finally decided to take a drive up to scope out the area. It’s actually two parcels of land on either side of the Millennium Trail, and we just have a few questions!” (Uh oh, I thought…land that has a formal trail system on it?)

“There is no road access so we’ll need to build a road, and we’ll need to find out how to go about getting the zoning changed to residential,” she said. Then my heart really sank.

The north plot of land was 162 acres of wild forested land with no road or water access. The southern plot was an additional 17 acres that encompassed a large pond, and nearly reached the edge of Three Mile Lake. Both properties were zoned as “OS/EP”, which stands for Open Space and Environmentally Protected.

The listing agent informed me the original lot was actually subdivided by the Township of Gravenhurst when they decided to build the Millennium Trail. A Planner at the Town of Gravenhurst confirmed what I already knew – OS/EP zoning simply can’t be changed to residential. There are a variety of other zoning codes in the vicinity, such as rural (RU) and rural residential (RR) where restrictions and by-laws could possibly be amended, but they would need the support of the council to even be considered. The Planner told me that the council would not even review an application to build both a road and a residence on land zoned as OS/EP. It’s designed to be wild and used for camping, birdwatching, hiking, photography, and so on.

This is why you can get nearly 200 acres of land for around half a million dollars with that zoning designation – but it was disappointing to dash my friend’s dream for this plan.

We ran into a related situation with our clients’ cottage purchase up in Dunchurch (north of Parry Sound) a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely property on the Magnetawan River, however the access road crossed a neighbouring plot of land (also owned by the sellers)…and was not listed on title.

The sellers assured our buyers that it would be fine, because they would always allow them to use the road. But what if they were to decide to build where part of the road lay? Or what if they sold, and the new owners had other ideas? That would leave our clients with a property that could only be accessed via the river (which was lovely, but not as a sole access route).

Our offer was accepted with a condition that a formal right of way be granted and put on title for the property, with the application process already in progress by the current owners. It was sold in July and was supposed to be completed by September. Then November. Then the new year. It didn’t get resolved and close until the following February!

Since COVID hit, there has been a huge spike in interest for cottage properties and rural/vacant land, so that people could get further away from big cities and each other. There are many complicating factors, however, that a good Realtor will try to help you navigate!


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