FOCA fought for clarity for Ontario waterfront property owners on the issue of permits for small docks and boathouses.
In 2015, dock building and repair got bogged down in red tape, after a Supreme Court ruling that, pursuant to the Public Lands Act, in matters of ‘in-water’ development, a provincial permit would be required for structures over Crown lands (a.k.a. a dock or boathouse over a lake).
Throughout 2016 FOCA pursued the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), writing that this permitting structure was confusing and unreasonable for small structures – whether new docks, or repairs to existing structures – and FOCA rallied waterfront owners to write the Ministry as well. By the end of the year, the province moved to begin to amend the situation, to allow certain “specific, low-risk occupations of public lands” (including small docks and single-storey boathouses) to proceed without the need for a permit under the Public Lands Act; after review and public input processes, the Act was finally amended to this effect in late 2019. FOCA members can read more on this significant FOCA advocacy effort under “Background” below.
Important note: some boathouse and dock structures are still subject to municipal zoning or building by-laws (or banned – see “Latest News” below), federal regulation (in the case of properties along the Trent-Severn or Rideau Waterways), and provincial work permits are still required if structures exceed a certain size (more than 15 square metres).
Planning work around the waterfront? Download these handy resources from partners, about who to contact for necessary permissions before you start the work:
- in the Kawarthas > Best First Call Sheet (PDF, 2 pages; Lakeland Alliance)
- in the Rideau watershed > Who to Call (PDF, 2 pages; RVCA & CRCA)
Also, Georgian Bay Forever and the Georgian Bay Association held a webinar about shoreline construction (including docks), that included this handy reference chart (NOT for those on the Trent Severn or Rideau Waterways, which have additional requirements). Click the image at the side to enlarge the chart, and see the full set of slides here; this is slide #108.
For additional municipal context, read this 2016 report comparing various municipal by-laws regarding docks, boathouses and other in-water structures at the time. (PDF, 33 pages, Township of Havelock-Belmont-Methuen)
August 2023 – Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has posted interim Codes of Practice describing your obligations under the Fisheries Act during the repair, maintenance and construction of docks and boathouses. These draft codes are posted for public comment on Talk Fish Habitat until November 30, 2023. Please send any comments or questions to DFO.FFHPP-PPPH.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca.
In general, according to these proposed rules, a project review by DFO is not required for certain “small” projects when certain conditions are met and measures are taken, to prevent harmful impacts to fish and fish habitat and to avoid contravention of the Federal Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act. If you cannot meet all of the conditions and implement all of the applicable measures listed, your project may result in a violation of the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act, and you could be subject to enforcement action. Please note this code of practice does not replace the obligation to comply with the requirements of any other federal, provincial or municipal regulatory agency.
DFO is responsible for the conservation and protection of fish and fish habitat across Canada. Under the Fisheries Act, no activities in or near water can result in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction (HADD) of fish habitat, or the death of fish, unless it has been authorized by DFO.
Related Earlier News:
June 21, 2019 – The revised Federal Fisheries Act (Bill C-68) gives the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) increased oversight of development activities and the management of fish and fish habitat. It restores prohibitions against the harmful alteration, disruption, and destruction of fish habitat, and should allow for better protection for biodiversity. The Act also has tools to repair past harm to habitat and helps depleted fish populations recover from impacts such as climate change, loss of habitat or other environmental conditions. Over the next year, there will be much work to do to rebuild the regulations under the new Act, set up the proposed public registry and more. For more information, visit the DFO Fisheries Act web pages.
May 2023 – Our member group, the Three Mile Lake Community Association in Armour Township, is in the midst of countering such a threat.
Transport Canada is reviewing the situation, and the association has created a petition that requires 500 signatures in order to be read by the local MP in the House of Commons, hoping to stop such incidents from happening. If you wish to add your name to the petition, please access it here by June 25, 2023 at the latest. (In the aerial image provided by the association, the “aerodrome” in question is seen near the lower left of the picture, and looks a lot like a dock with 4 boat slips.)
Sept.20, 2022 – Ban on new Jack Lake on-land boathouses moves forward (Peterborough Examiner) – consultant’s report recommends coming in-line with neighbouring Township of North Kawartha ban.
Aug. 16, 2022 – Tay Township, Ont. considering zoning bylaw for docks (Cottage Life) – looking at something similar to the Township of Georgian Bay, which does have bylaws around dock size.
April 21, 2022 – the Township of Havelock-Belmont-Methuen is holding a virtual and in-person public meeting to consider a proposed Official Plan Amendment and Zoning By-law Amendment to prohibit the development of boathouses on Jack(‘s) Lake. Pre-registration to attend is required. Get details here.
In June 2015, municipal jurisdiction and ability to pass by-laws related to on-water structures (e.g. boathouses) was the subject of a lawsuit and subsequent decision rendered by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Two eastern Ontario municipalities (North Kawartha, and Havelock-Belmont-Methuen) took the position that their planning authority, by-laws and permitting rights and obligations did NOT extend to matters of “in-water” development. The Supreme Court disagreed. Among other important aspects of this decision was Justice J. Perell’s statement that, “I cannot reasonably interpret the bylaws that would allow the municipality to abdicate its governance responsibilities over zoning or the Building Code Act...” The decision stated that: “The Township of North Kawartha is, therefore, mistaken in thinking that simply because Crown Lands are involved it cannot enact or enforce its by-laws over the Crown Lands,” citing numerous other instances and municipalities where this authority has been used, and upheld. Read the full decision here. (PDF, 24 pages, 1.6MB)
As a result of this ruling, in August 2015, Crown Lands Policy branch informed FOCA that the Superior Court ruling might lead to policy changes at MNRF – some interim, and then eventually more permanent, to address the shortcomings or inconsistencies related to MNRF’s requirements to issue permits for in-water works. The judge had ruled that, pursuant to the Regulations under the Public Lands Act, a permit was required for anyone building a dock or boathouse over Crown lands (a.k.a., on lakes) larger than 15 square metres.
Related media: April 4, 2016- Dock building and repair just got bogged down in red tape (Huntsville Doppler)
In February 2016, FOCA alerted our members of the following:
Property owners should take note that– according to multiple MNRF sources, including email@example.com –the current rules require authorization under the Public Lands Act to construct or place a dock or boathouse that occupies (i.e., that is on or above) more than 15 square meters of shore lands. The area of shore lands occupied by a dock or boathouse will typically be calculated based on the perimeter of the structure. Individuals who wish to construct or place docks or boathouses that occupy more than 15 square meters of shore land should contact their local MNRF District Office to initiate the formal application process. Local District office contacts can be found here: https://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-natural-resources-and-forestry-regional-and-district-offices. See also, the required application form. Related: HOW BIG IS 15 SQ. M.? (PDF, 1 pg)
In April 2016, FOCA wrote to the MNRF expressing our concerns about the new approach to managing or approving docks and boathouses. Read FOCA’s letter to the Minister (PDF, 2 pages).
In May 2016, FOCA received word (based upon this update to MPPs from the Minster) that the new permitting requirements would remain in place for all of the 2016 season, if not longer. In response, FOCA rallied our members to write the Minister (originally Bill Mauro; later Kathryn McGarry) to share their own concerns about the permitting situation.
By October 2016, FOCA was pleased to report that MNRF were taking steps to eliminate the over-regulation of docks: Schedule 14 of Provincial Bill 27, “Burden Reduction Act, 2016” included provisions to amend 4 statutes administered by MNRF, including proposed changes to the Public Lands Act (PLA) which would: “Allow individuals to occupy public lands with certain types of buildings, structures or things prescribed by regulation, without the need for a permit or other instrument under the PLA. These individuals would be subject to the limitations and requirements specified in the proposed Bill and any future regulations made under the PLA. The intention of these proposed PLA amendments is to address specific, low-risk occupations of public lands (e.g., docks and other small waterfront structures).”
The changes were part of a notice for public engagement, posted to the Environmental Bill of Rights, under EBR Registry Number 012-7645. The Bill was reintroduced in the Fall 2016 session of the Ontario Legislature, and passed in March 2017. However, the regulations related to permits were still being written and reviewed by MNRF, and were therefore posted to a new EBR posting: #013-0211 until May 2017. Read FOCA’s written input. (PDF, 2 pages)
NOTE: At the time, FOCA suggested MNRF retain authority to regulate docks or single storey boathouses above a certain size threshold, but this was not included in the proposed regulation. MNRF indicated it considered this the sole and exclusive purview of local standards, established through municipal bylaws.
In June 2017, MNRF posted new regulations (Public Lands Act, Ontario Regulation 161/17) related to the following classes of buildings, structures or things, and included them as a “free use” of public lands that did not require a permit or occupancy requirement:
- docks, boat lifts, boat ramps, and marine railways
- swim rafts
- single-storey boathouses
- break walls and related backfill
- recreational boat caches which includes canoes, kayaks and motor boats
- ramps and jumps and slalom courses
- bridges, culverts and causeways
- recreational camping units (21 days)
- ice fishing huts.
Some clarification on regulated structures was also provided, for example, a “dock” includes any associated shade structures affixed to the dock such as a gazebo or pergola.
Please note that some of these are subject to municipal zoning or building bylaw, and/or federal regulation. Provincial work permits may still apply for the construction or installation of the above. (For instance: permits are required to place a structure that physically touches more than 15 square metres of shore lands – i.e., the lake bottom. As such, floating and cantilever docks, boathouses with cribs less than 15 square meters and swim rafts do not require work permits). Please see the EBR Decision 013-0211 for further details and links to related information and other changes.
In late 2019, the provincial government’s Better for People, Smarter for Business Act, 2019 (Bill 132) passed, amending (among many things) the Public Lands Act to allow docks or single-storey boathouses located on Crown land (i.e., the lakebed) without the need for a permit or annual rent. Read the related Backgrounder from the province (PDF, see pages 15-16)