Ontario cottage owners warn of 'campground coup' by seasonal residents

Residents of Wollaston Township, a small cottage-country township in Ontario, say their local government has been hijacked by seasonal campers who formed a voting bloc to influence the local government. The campground owners say their customers deserve a voice.

Residents and campground site renters divided in Wollaston Township

Red Eagle campground in Wollaston Township has been operating on Wollaston Lake since the 1930s, and has about 220 sites. Renters at campgrounds in the area have registered for the municipal voters list of Wollaston, angering local residents who say they're outnumbered in civic elections. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Some longtime residents of a small cottage country township in Hastings County, Ont., say their rights and interests are being trampled by a growing group of "vacationers" who form a voting bloc to influence the local government.

Since 2018, hundreds of renters from two RV campgrounds have registered their names to the municipal voters list of Wollaston, a heavily forested 22,000-hectare township located midway between Toronto and Ottawa.

In the last civic election, campground registrants outnumbered "permanent residents" of voting age 664 to 605, electing a council deeply divided on a variety of issues from environmental concerns with a local lake to the sale of township greenspace for development.

The ongoing dispute in the area represents a growing issue in small towns across Ontario, with one legal professor suggesting the question of who qualifies as a tenant will only become more prominent in an age of short-term rentals.

"I call it a 'campground coup,' " said Graham Blair, the former reeve of Wollaston who lost his seat three years ago.

Bear Ridge campground began an expansion in 2015 and now includes about 100 lots. Owner Jay Morrison is also a member of the town council. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The area is home to several conservation areas, including beaver ponds and wetlands. It's also a popular spot for ATV enthusiasts and campers who park their trailers at the Bear Ridge and Red Eagle campgrounds.

Today, the owner of Bear Ridge, his bookkeeper and a camper make up three of Wollaston's five councillors.

Blair and others in the community allege the effect of that concentration of power has left both vacation businesses with an inadequate septic system and the council indifferent to enforcement leading to a general decline in the health of the local lake.

The council has also proposed to sell off for development a 40-hectare greenspace of trees and trails known as Nellie Lunn Park, bequeathed to the township in 1981 by a war veteran. Opposition to the sale of the land by those who live in the township has grown. 

The three councillors, meanwhile, continue to defend their right to make decisions for the township as elected officials representing their constituents. 

WATCH | Wollaston Township residents say campers have taken over local government:

Residents of Wollaston Township say campers have taken over local government after being allowed to vote

2 years ago
Duration 2:45
Some Wollaston Township residents say it’s unfair that vacationers at two RV campgrounds have been allowed to vote in municipal elections, saying it leads to a council that is “sympathetic” to the interests of the campers. Wollaston Township officials declined to be interviewed by CBC News.

Cottage country 'civil war'

The story of Wollaston's "civil war" — as some have called it — came to a head in August when a group of property owners and long-term residents threatened to invoke the province's Environmental Bill of Rights, which empowers Ontarians to participate in decision making processes involving the environment.

The group's lawyer, David Donnelly, is demanding evidence of environmental compliance approval and outstanding provisions needed for campground expansion from the Township of Wollaston.

"The trailer parks seem to be doing things that normal residents can't do," he said, citing examples where campground owners were given the green light to expand.

"Free passes have been given to a couple of large trailer parks in the area and it's about time the law was enforced equally in Wollaston Township," said the lawyer in regards to bylaws and environmental regulations. 

Fred McConnell, lake steward of the Wollaston Home and Cottage Association, said Wollaston Lake itself is "showing signs of stress" as a result of the indifferent enforcement of environmental regulations regarding the campgrounds.

He said he recorded phosphorus levels this summer that were triple their normal July values. High levels of phosphorus can lead to an increase in algae blooms, which in turn can affect fish populations. 

Fred McConnell, lake steward of the Wollaston Home and Cottage Association, said Wollaston Lake is 'showing signs of stress.' (Stu Mills/CBC )

Donnelly says his clients are poised to call for an investigation by Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks "should the Township continue to overlook these contraventions." 

No one at the Wollaston township office would agree to an interview with CBC.

Should the long-term residents escalate matters, it would not be the first time they have tried to involve provincial authorities.

How campers became voters

How Wollaston became a divided community requires some understanding of how municipal elections work in Ontario.

Unlike federal and provincial elections, voters can potentially cast a ballot in multiple municipalities. 

According to the Municipal Elections Act, eligibility covers "either a resident of the municipality or a property owner or tenant or the spouse or same sex partner of an owner or tenant in the municipality during the specific time just before the election."

This means if you are a resident in one municipality but a renter in three other Ontario municipalities, you and your spouse can vote in all four of those municipal elections.

Verna Brundage, the former Wollaston clerk responsible for adding names to the local voters list in 2018, had warned the province of this issue.

The owners of the campgrounds in our township have proven that they can use their unique opportunity to co-ordinate the election of a group of people of their choice​​​​.- Vera Brundage, former Wollaston clerk in a letter to the minister of municipal affairs and housing

"The owners of the campgrounds in our township have proven that they can use their unique opportunity to co-ordinate the election of a group of people of their choice," she wrote in a letter at the time to Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Brundage said she wasn't surprised when mail-in ballots from the township's 320 campsites swamped those from Wollaston's roughly 600 voting-age residents. 

In fact, the retired clerk said she had anticipated voter turnout would be historically huge due to the sheer volume of calls to her office from campers in the lead up to the election, asking to verify their names had been added to the voters list. 

The flood of new voters caused such a stir that at one point the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) investigated the results, but did not lay any charges.

Campground owners defend electoral right

At Bear Ridge, owner and Wollaston town councillor Jay Morrison refused a recorded interview with CBC but defended the right of his customers to cast votes in the municipal election.

He said they have a "licence of occupation."

He and his wife, Traci Morrison, also dismissed the suggestion that the septic system was inadequate and showed CBC News the pumping system and filtration field that were installed after the campground was expanded.

Karen Challinor, owner of Red Eagle believes campers are the ones under attack.

She called the cottagers a "vocal pain in the ass who stamp their feet like little toddlers."

"We told our customers that we were being attacked by cottagers and they paid attention," said Challinor.

Morrison, the owner of Bear Ridge, along with his bookkeeper and a camper make up three of Wollaston's five town councillors. They say it's their right to make decisions for the township as elected officials representing their constituents. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Law needs clarity: professor

The ongoing dispute in Wollaston represents a growing issue in small towns across Ontario, according to a law professor.

Who qualifies as a "tenant" needs to be clarified, especially in the age of short-term rentals such as Airbnb and seasonal renters, said Stephane Emard-Chabot, who teaches municipal law at the University of Ottawa.

"Now that the tip of the iceberg has popped up, we know that this can lead to results that don't really reflect the will of those who have a stake in the community," he said.

In October 2020, the provincial government passed new legislation on the regulation of municipal voting lists — shifting the responsibility from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) to Elections Ontario. 

However, the legislation leaves the status quo in place until 2024, meaning in next year's election, it will still be up to the municipal clerks to interpret who, where and when a person qualifies as a tenant.

The recent changes at the municipal level have felt like a loss of representation for Wollaston property owners like Sam Purdy, who says he feels he has 'no voice here now.' (Stu Mills/CBC)

And even when Elections Ontario does take responsibility, there is no guarantee that seasonal vacationers couldn't still overrun a municipal election.

For Wollaston property owners like Sam Purdy, it can feel like a loss of representation.

"There is no voice here now — none," he said, adding a warning to other cottage owners: "You better watch out because this could happen to you."