Province backtracks on fee hike for cottagers in Manitoba parks

Roughly 6,000 cottagers with lots in Manitoba parks won't be looking at massive lease hikes after all — at least for the time being.

Fees were to increase as much as 750% for lakefront cottagers over 10 years in some parks

Cottagers in Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park dock their boats at the Gull Harbour Marina. Planned fee hikes for cottagers across 18 of Manitoba's provincial parks, including Hecla, have been frozen for now. (Melanie Verhaeghe/CBC)

Roughly 6,000 cottagers with lots in Manitoba parks won't be looking at massively higher costs in the new year after all.

In 2013, the province announced it would be raising annual lease fees significantly over a 10-year period in 18 parks. It would mean annual fees for most properties in parks would rise by between $4,000 and $5,000 over time.

At the time, the Whiteshell Cottagers Association (WCA) said cottagers would be facing rate hikes of about $400 per year for the next decade. That worked out to about a 750 per cent increase for lakefront owners and a 250 per cent increase for backlot owners.

But on Christmas Eve, the province agreed to keep Crown land lease rates fixed heading into 2016 until a new agreement can be reached.

"We've listened to the Whiteshell Cottagers Association and other groups in this regard and we are pleased to announce that we will be freezing rents on land until the new assessment system is established," the province said in a statement Monday.

"Park district fees will continue to increase at a modest rate as planned, to ensure that all cottage owners pay their fair share for services they utilize, such as garbage pickup."

The WCA praised the province's decision to stop the increase and head back to the bargaining table.

"We are particularly pleased that the [conservation minister] has taken this step to ensure that the tradition of family cottaging in provincial parks will remain affordable for the people of Manitoba,'" the WCA said in a statement.

The park district service fee system was implemented by the previous government and has never fairly treated cottagers across Manitoba.- Manitoba government

Joan Stephens' family has owned a lakefront cottage at West Hawk Lake since 1954. The cabin is only accessible by water or, in the winter, over the ice.

Stephens said she was excited to hear rates have been frozen.

"My first reaction was, 'Great, [the province is] finally talking to us,'" she said. "For some time, my understanding was they just said, 'This is the way it is and too bad, so sad."'

The government said it was raising fees to help cover the cost of park services. But Stephens said the rate of the hikes far exceeded the cost of providing those services.

'Fair' being the operative word'

"It just wasn't fair, it wasn't equitable and so that's why we were putting pressure on them," she said.

"We absolutely have never for a moment said we're not in it to pay our fair share. It's not a right to have a cottage in the park, it's a privilege and we absolutely believe that we should be paying our fair share [for] that privilege. 'Fair' being the operative word."

It would mean that only people with a huge amount of money would be able to afford to buy the cottage.- Joan Stephens

Stephens attributed the lease freeze to the work of people involved with the WCA.

"I was very grateful that this incredible group of volunteers kept the pressure on," she said. "It was a big sense of relief for me, certainly, and my brother…. It just means [the province is] willing to talk."

Freezing the rates has eased concerns in the Stephens family that they would be forced to sell their cabin.

"It's huge. My parents wanted this cottage to stay in the family and my dad always said, 'This is something we've invested in. It wasn't just handed to us on a silver platter,'" Stephens said, adding the spiking fees would inevitably force a number of middle-income families to sell their cottages. 

"It would mean that only people with a huge amount of money would be able to afford to buy the cottage. How is that being fair for everyone if we want to have access to provincial parks for the masses?"

The announcement comes after some cottagers planned to take the province to court over the issue, claiming the government wasn't being transparent about how revenue from the fees would be spent.

"All Manitobans value access to provincial parks, lakes and rivers and with this new system, we want to ensure equity among those who rent land for cottages in our provincial parks," the province said in a statement.

"The park district service fee system was implemented by the previous government and has never fairly treated cottagers across Manitoba. We've committed to implement a fair fee model for cottage users, to expand services such as recycling, improvements to roads, or better snow clearing for those who rent land in our provincial parks."

The province also plans to consult with cottage owners who have been threatening to take their concerns over the hike to court.


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